Losing a voice
In September 1984, the same month Britain and China initialled the Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong, the Chinese foreign minister Wu Xueqian addressed the United Nations to explain Beijing's policies towards the then British colony, to seek international support for its unique formula of 'one country, two systems'.
Wu explained that, aside from foreign affairs and defence, Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after July 1, 1997.
George Shultz, then the US secretary of state, welcomed the agreement and pledged American co-operation. Support for the accord also came from the European Community as well as other states, including Japan, Pakistan, Singapore and Thailand.
By asking for international support, China implicitly opened the door to international monitoring. But now, it seems, the Chinese foreign ministry believes it no longer needs that support.
The foreign ministry office in Hong Kong recently denounced the US consulate here for 'meddling' and 'interference' by talking to officials and private citizens, calling this a contravention of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. However, the convention says consular functions include 'ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the commercial, economic, cultural and scientific life of the receiving state, reporting thereon to the government of the sending state and giving information to persons interested'.
Speaking to officials and others is certainly a lawful means to ascertain conditions in Hong Kong. In fact, gathering information is what all diplomats do, including Chinese diplomats stationed abroad.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry seemed particularly unhappy with the American consulate for 'holding frequent meetings' with selected, unnamed people. However, issuing such a warning is unlikely to deter people like leading democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming and former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang from meeting US diplomats. The only people likely to be deterred are pro-China individuals and groups who may believe that Beijing considers meeting US officials to be unpatriotic.
What this means is that American diplomats will get a skewed picture of public opinion, since they will only be hearing from members of the democratic camp and others not trusted by Beijing.
Of course, Washington will still hear the official Chinese viewpoint from officials from the Foreign Ministry, the central government's liaison office and the People's Liberation Army. But the impression given to its diplomats may be that the official Chinese viewpoint is not supported by significant segments of the Hong Kong public. Surely, this cannot be what the Foreign Ministry's office in Hong Kong wants.
This was the situation in which I found myself three decades ago after I set up The Wall Street Journal's bureau in Beijing. The Chinese government was almost totally inaccessible to foreign correspondents, but political dissidents sought us out. Thirty years later, one would have thought the Chinese government would know better. But then again, maybe not.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1