The limits of Chinese parochialism
Philip Bowring says while Beijing must see itself as more than an Asian power and play a positive role in world affairs, Hong Kong must get over its fixation with mainland China and the West
Three events in recent days have focused needed attention on the international roles of China and Hong Kong: President Xi Jinping's high-profile visit to the US, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's almost invisible visit to the US, and the case of ex-CIA operative Edward Snowden.
Xi's trip may have had little substance but confirmed the near equality with the US that China is now widely assumed to possess, if only because of its sheer size. But it was also a reminder that China has played almost no role in global theatres, where it might be able to play a positive one because of the assumption of its neutrality.
The prime example is the Middle East, on which its reliance for oil is increasing while that of the US is diminishing. It will need to be involved, and so the sooner it does so, while its hands in the region are seen as relatively clean, the better. No one would wish China to join the crowd of interlopers into Syria's messy civil war, but it does enjoy reasonable relations with the two key protagonists in the Middle East conflict: Iran and Israel.
The US pretence at being a mediator is belied by its de facto support for Israel's creeping expansion and ethnocentric system. US animosity towards Iran has been so unremitting as to bolster the position of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his fascistic Revolutionary Guard while underwriting the Salafist monarchy in Saudi Arabia and giving birth to a Shiite sectarian regime in Iraq.
Europe lacks a coherent policy for the region and, due to its baggage of history, is unlikely to develop one. Trust in Russia is at a low ebb almost everywhere. So while China may not want to be involved in this convoluted region, neutral observers might well welcome it. It now also has economic influence to put at the disposal of diplomacy.
The more China is seen as a potential benign influence elsewhere, the more likely it is to behave responsibly in its own region. If China sees itself primarily as an Asian power, it will continue to obsess about the Diaoyus, dream of hegemony over its Southeast Asian neighbours and engage in border niggles with India. But a China with a wider global role, especially where it has an interest in limiting conflicts, will be inclined to better behaviour closer to home. As it is, China's diplomats must be painfully aware of the damage to its global image over the past year by its bullying of Vietnam and the Philippines.
Quite why Leung followed so close behind Xi in visiting the US is not clear. He carries no weight and saw no one of significance. It could not be otherwise for a US for whom Hong Kong is (at least pre-Snowden) not much of an issue and where Leung has few of the contacts enjoyed by Tung Chee-hwa. Time and effort would have been far better spent building Hong Kong's relations with its neighbours. Leung would have got notice if he had gone instead to Malaysia, Indonesia or (dare I suggest) the Philippines.
Obsession with the mainland, and to a lesser degree the West, has been a feature of Hong Kong government at least since the handover. Meanwhile, relations with the neighbours, all of whom have large ethnic-Chinese business communities, which once looked to Hong Kong as a home from home as well as a safety deposit box, have withered.
Singapore has gained massively at Hong Kong's expense, building relations with India as well as its Southeast Asian neighbours. The lack of international awareness, at least of places other than North America and London, shown by Hong Kong's political and bureaucratic leadership is disappointing and dangerous.
It is a parochialism that is infecting attitudes to foreigners in general, and to mainlanders. The coming denial of government funds for the English Schools Foundation is a case in point. It is gross discrimination, both against foreigners and locals who want an English-language education, not to provide the same subsidy as directly aided schools. Likewise, the tax on non-permanent residents' buying of property was knee-jerk stupidity which briefly cooled luxury prices but not the flats that most Hong Kong people buy. The mindset revealed by these policies is as bad as the policies themselves. Hong Kong can protect its identity not by keeping people out but by welcoming all who abide by its laws and want to take advantage of its special position.
Snowden may have an exaggerated view of the level of liberty enjoyed here, the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary and the fair-mindedness of its government. We may not all feel quite as afraid of the snooping of the National Security Agency as Snowden does. But he has done Hong Kong a favour by "coming out" here, and the world a favour by focusing on threats posed by accumulations of data, whether by the state in the name of national security or by corporations that care only for profit and pay little tax by buying off politicians and bureaucrats to agree to their offshore avoidance schemes.
It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong becomes the focus for legal battles. But, globally, battle has been joined and Hong Kong, a unique entity, may have a part to play in helping the US recover from the Patriot Act and, like the trust-busters of old, curb the power that information technology has given to a tiny clique of huge businesses.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator