Which boss?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2011, 12:00am


The State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya may not have expected his recent comments on Hong Kong civil servants - that colonial rule had trained them to 'listen to the boss' and they now 'don't know how to be a boss' - to stir up quite such a firestorm.

Whether or not we agree with Wang, or the subsequent onslaught of comments, one thing is evident: 14 years after the handover, Beijing and Hong Kong are still knocking heads over what 'one country, two systems' really means, as successful as the concept may have been. Because of that, our relationship remains fragile. And there lies the tinder.

There are intrinsic management difficulties when there is more than one 'boss' - real or perceived. And these are struggles not only for the city's leaders and civil service, but for all Hongkongers alike.

These struggles have been present since the 1970s, when political discourse began over Hong Kong's future after the expiry of the British lease. The politically turbulent times of the diplomatic negotiations and deadlocks in the 1980s - as Hong Kong's colonial and future 'masters' fought over what was to become the Sino-British Joint Declaration - made it clear to us that, while we were the bone of contention, we would have little say in our own future.

So, in fact, Hongkongers have long been aware of our political realities. With the British Parliament's passing of the British Nationality Act 1981, we knew we were not wanted by our colonial master.

In the 'transitional period' leading up to 1997, the city was just a battlefield of two countries. The return of Hong Kong, and Macau, to the motherland serves purposes beyond our interests. Wang, a former permanent representative of China to the United Nations, surely understood that. In that capacity, he spoke of China's 'bitter and humiliating experiences' of 'pain inflicted by outside aggressors' in a speech at Princeton University in 2004. Hongkongers have long been aware that Hong Kong was part of that pain.

Hong Kong's 'high degree of autonomy' and 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong' were, in fact, decided for us. Every now and then, Hongkongers are given friendly reminders, like the one by National People's Congress Standing Committee chairman Wu Bangguo in 2007, that whatever 'autonomy' we enjoy is authorised. Some come in harsher forms, like Beijing's 1999 reinterpretation of the court ruling over the right of abode for mainland-born children of Hong Kong resident parents, in which the issue wasn't just one involving the defence of sovereignty and constitutionality, but also an illustration of 'who is boss'.

So it should be clear to Wang that pragmatic Hongkongers do not for a moment overestimate our 'granted' (not entitled) share of 'bossiness'. Having been a career diplomat, there should be no doubt over Wang's understanding and mastery of nuances. Building trust in the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship will require even more sensitivity and carefully crafted nuances. Anything that adds to the 'them versus us' rhetoric will serve no good purpose for the people, the 'boss' or the 'boss' boss'.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA