At home abroad

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 September, 2010, 12:00am

The hostage tragedy in Manila raises questions about Hong Kong's international position, especially because the Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, did not take a phone call from Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Some commentators said it was inappropriate for the chief executive to phone a head of state. However, the vast majority of Hongkongers evidently support Tsang. The Legislative Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for an apology from the Philippine government. During the debate, Tsang won widespread praise for his handling of the incident.

Actually, there was no impropriety involved in the phone call. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed no unhappiness about it. Last week, Tsang was in Moscow meeting President Dmitry Medvedev; after returning home, he hosted the presidents of Ukraine and Slovakia. Dealing with heads of state is far from a rarity. And such dealings have Beijing's blessing.

But the question of Hong Kong's international position needs to be addressed. The Basic Law makes it clear that while China is responsible for foreign affairs, there is also a role for Hong Kong. Article 151 says Hong Kong may 'maintain and develop relations and conclude and implement agreements with foreign states and regions ... in the appropriate fields, including the economic, trade, financial and monetary, shipping, communications, tourism, cultural and sports fields'.

The Manila hostages were tourists and Tsang, as Hong Kong's leader, clearly had a duty to protect them and insist that their safety be accorded priority in any negotiations with the hostage-taker. But while Hong Kong has been delegated authority by Beijing to handle many aspects of foreign affairs, it lacks the wherewithal to deal with issues as they arise around the world.

China's Foreign Ministry has embassies in virtually every corner of the world, but Hong Kong's outreach is much more limited. The closest approximation to official government agencies abroad are the economic and trade offices, which are found in only 10 countries. Outside China, the only ones in Asia are in Tokyo and Singapore. If Hong Kong is to develop a system for the greater protection of its travellers overseas, the offices have to take on the task. The Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council also have overseas networks, but their mission is to attract foreign visitors, and they have little to do with travellers from the city.

Currently, Hong Kong lacks political intelligence. It does not have a system for collecting information needed for understanding developments around the world that may have an impact on us. The existing network of economic and trade offices should assume the task of political reporting, keeping the government informed of crime, changes in governments, coup attempts and natural disasters - anything that may affect the security of Hong Kong travellers.

The government should also look after people who may have legal problems overseas. Legislator Paul Tse Wai-chun, for example, has cited the case of Jimmy Cheung Tai-on, who has been languishing in custody in Manila for years on drug charges without a proper trial. Cheung claims it is a 'frame up'.

Hong Kong should also raise its international profile. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa created the Council of International Advisers, which included prominent personalities from around the world. The council met annually but, since Tung left office, there have been no meetings. In March 2006, the government said it was reviewing the council's mode of operation to enable it to 'render advice on strategic issues pertinent to the long-term development of Hong Kong'.

When eminent people are prepared to offer their services, it seems remiss of the government not to make use of them. Hong Kong needs to focus now on its long-term strategy and its positioning in China, the region and the world. Reviving the council would be helpful. Its members would offer useful advice and help raise Hong Kong's international profile.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator