Beijing's eagerness to take charge undermines HK autonomy

Frank Ching says the central government ought to know when to ease off and let its appointed leader in Hong Kong get on with the job

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 3:18am

It is extremely unfortunate that a marine tragedy that cost 39 lives has provided the cause for another row between Hong Kong and the mainland.

It is true, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said in his National Day address, that it is "essential for Hong Kong to develop alongside the mainland" and so confrontation is not in anyone's interests.

That said, however, the way in which the mainland responded to the tragedy is deeply unsettling. First of all, Li Gang, deputy director of the central government's liaison office, adopted a high profile by visiting Queen Mary Hospital, speaking to the media, disclosing that there had been fatalities and announcing that barges would be sent from the mainland to assist in salvage operations.

This took place even before the Hong Kong government had announced that a number of people had died, or that mainland assistance had been requested.

The liaison office created the impression that it, not the Leung administration, was running Hong Kong. What made it worse was that the official China News Service subsequently reported - erroneously - that "professional boats from China successfully rescued 95 people" when the truth was that the boats were unneeded and returned to the mainland without ever being deployed here.

Intentionally or not, the mainland undermined the authority of the chief executive, at a time when his popularity ratings badly need a boost.

Moreover, as this newspaper reported, state broadcaster China Central Television ran a headline in a report on the disaster, saying that President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-President Xi Jinping had issued "important instructions" ordering the Hong Kong government to spare no effort in "searching for missing persons, treating the injured and comforting their relatives".

No doubt, on the mainland, the central government is accustomed to giving orders to subordinate governments. But Hong Kong is supposed to be different, with its high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs.

Since the handling of a maritime accident cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as either a matter of foreign affairs or defence, it was inappropriate for the central government to issue orders on how the incident should be handled.

The Hong Kong government, of course, was already doing everything that could be done, even without such urging. But, it seems, the central government simply cannot resist its tendency to be in control. Unlike Tung Chee-hwa, who refused to go to Chek Lap Kok when there were problems with the new airport, saying he did not want to put on a show and get in the way, Leung was on the scene almost immediately to evaluate the situation before going on to Queen Mary Hospital to comfort the injured.

He certainly looked like someone who was in charge - until Li Gang arrived uninvited.

The chief executive was appointed by the central authorities. They should let him do his job.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1