Northern chill

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


The region - and the wider world - is still watching Hong Kong. That is a fact sometimes obscured behind the insular nature of Hong Kong politics - an arena, of course, that is an island in all senses of the word.

And those watching are paying particularly close attention after the strange and unusual saga of Wikileaks, the US Consulate and a blistering response from Beijing. After Wikileaks detailed connections between the consulate on Garden Road and Hong Kong government officials as well local politicians of all stripes, the Foreign Ministry, through its Hong Kong office, rebuked US diplomats last month for interfering in the city's constitutional development.

A spokesman for the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs specifically accused the US of contravening the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which forbids diplomats from interfering in the internal affairs of host states.

It was not an isolated swipe. In the weeks leading up to the charge, propagandists from the Communist Party's local mouthpieces had been having a field day, portraying a dangerous conspiracy between local democratic forces and US puppet masters.

Some invoked the language of a darker era to lambast the 'Gang of Four', linking Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Next Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Martin Lee Chu-ming. One commentary in Ta Kung Pao described their 'traitorous actions' serving 'foreign masters'.

Not surprisingly, Washington has not only rejected such complaints, but vowed to continue its diplomatic efforts here. US Assistant Secretary of State Dr Kurt Campbell spoke proudly of the consulate's 'deep engagement in all aspects of life' in the SAR, a role not only understood by Beijing, but appreciated, too.

Beijing officials repeated their initial concerns after his remarks, however. And the propagandists' narrative has continued, too, amid news of Lai's HK$60 million worth of donations to the pan-democratic cause and Cardinal Zen.

Hong Kong's diplomatic salons are buzzing with questions. Has the US overstepped the mark, or is Beijing suddenly uncomfortable that Hong Kong's freedoms - including the well-established information trade across 'Asia's World City' - represent a loss of control?

Assuming that Hong Kong's consulates will continue to take their political soundings from a wide range of sources, and that pan-democrats continue to talk, perhaps the real target is elsewhere. 'The democrats are the stated target but maybe the furore is a signal to the establishment camp to be very careful in its dealings with the outside world,' said one veteran Asian envoy. 'Some of us are wondering whether we are about to see a chill.'

Many agree that would represent a considerable shift in the way Hong Kong operates. Local civil servants, for example, have long understood and enjoyed freewheeling ties with foreign business and diplomatic communities, despite Beijing's ultimate responsibility for foreign affairs. In short, such dealings have long been part of Hong Kong's autonomy. Could that now be at risk?

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.