Good reasons to welcome Beijing's more upfront views

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2011, 12:00am


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Today is the 14th anniversary of the handover, a suitable occasion to set aside the relatively short-term ups and downs that have preoccupied Hong Kong since 1997 and look at the big, slowly evolving picture in the background. Hong Kong is a small part of a big country, and that country, and its place in the world around it, is changing.

We had a reminder of this just two weeks ago when Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya visited Hong Kong. I met Wang in New York in 2007 when he was China's permanent representative to the United Nations. I asked him about China's role in Sudan, and I was struck by the openness and diplomatic skill of his response. It was very different from the closed, defensive attitude of some Chinese officials in years past.

His recent visit here displayed this style of a new generation of Chinese leaders. Previous senior officials from the HKMAO did not go around eating egg tarts and talking to students on the rare occasions they visited Hong Kong. Maybe they were simply not comfortable with that sort of public relations activity. Mainly, though, the assumption was that they kept a low profile to avoid giving any impression of interfering with how Hong Kong was being governed.

But Wang did more than eat tarts for the cameras. He acknowledged in public that Hong Kong faces problems. He particularly struck a chord with the community when he said the government should pay more attention to the concerns of ordinary people, specifically housing prices.

A lot of people in Hong Kong have been saying the same thing. However, some commentators felt these comments were inappropriate, even if they agreed with them. To them, Wang's remarks looked like interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs.

This raises important questions about how we in Hong Kong see the dividing line between national government and the Hong Kong administration, between the one country and the two systems. Do Hong Kong people want Beijing to ignore what is happening here, or do we want and expect the central government to pay attention to our local concerns?

For years, many opposition figures have been urging central government officials in Hong Kong to be more open. Now they are getting what they want, but they are not sure if they like it. Is Wang's style - a higher profile, a willingness to get out among the community, and plain speaking - a welcome sign of a warmer relationship between the city and the central government? Or is it evidence that Beijing is gradually exercising greater direct control over Hong Kong? Or is it simply part of a much bigger trend?

In the days before the handover, Hong Kong looked to its autonomy as its main hope. Yet at least some of the barriers between the two systems have started to look less beneficial, and maybe even more like burdens. We can see this in the way immigration and residency rules interfere in what I would call a process of 'normalisation' of social relations between the two jurisdictions. Cross-border marriages, studying and commuting are expanding; old barriers can actually contribute to new social problems like cross-border split families.

This applies to all sorts of regional and cross-border issues - from transport to crime-fighting and anti-pollution measures. Continued and growing interaction between various players on either side of the border is necessary to sort out problems that few people even anticipated 14 years ago.

Such a trend must extend to top-level officialdom as well. The traditional approach, where mainland officials stayed out of sight and spoke only behind closed doors, may have been a good thing or a bad thing. People are right to be alert about Hong Kong's autonomy over local affairs. However, I think a more open public stance on perhaps sensitive issues by both local and Beijing officials will generally be positive. Either way, it is a trend we probably cannot avoid.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils