Hong Kong needs no help working out its democratic future

Mike Rowse says officials, across the border and beyond, should ease up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 2:44am

What you make of the play sometimes depends on where you are sitting in the theatre. Watching political leaders and their representatives from three different national governments spar gently over the future of political reform in Hong Kong could make the ordinary citizen's head spin. There is action all over the stage and indeed some in the stalls.

British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire offered help to Hong Kong in taking forward the democratisation promised to us. No doubt, viewed from the UK seats, this looked like a well-intended offer of assistance. For those of us with longer memories, it seemed a bit much coming from a government that had done everything possible to deny Hong Kong meaningful progress in representative government for the best part of a century and a half.

For reasons only he and his advisers will know, Swire did not refer in his comments to the Joint Declaration, which might at least have given him some cover, bearing in mind that the UK was a co-signer with China and the agreement was registered as a treaty with the UN. As it was, he was left defenceless when Beijing entered stage left and went on the counter-attack.

Next on stage was the new US consul general in our city, Clifford Hart. In his first public speech after taking up his post two months ago, he commended Beijing for having invented the concept of "one country, two systems" and for promising Hong Kong democratic progress. Hart no doubt was trying to navigate carefully between the Scylla of poking China in the eye and the Charybdis of moving away from his country's previous supportive position.

To some extent, he succeeded because he made a point of not endorsing any particular model and stressing that every community was entitled to find its own path of democracy. In the US seats, this probably came over as a bit cautious. But the reference to a "genuine choice" in the coming chief executive election gave Beijing all the ammunition it needed to shoot back.

And, in response to a question about the possibility of a visa waiver for Hong Kong passport holders, Hart said US legislation did not allow this for part of a country, so an amendment would be needed and this took time. He conveniently skipped over the fact Taiwan passport holders already enjoy a visa waiver.

How does all this come across to the audience in the Chinese seats? A fair observer would have to admit that this section of the audience is oversensitive. Even bland and mild expressions of goodwill by Hong Kong friends around the world are interpreted as interference in the country's internal affairs. Perhaps we should be a little tolerant of this reaction. Memories of China's century of domination by foreign powers still linger.

Up in the balcony, in the seats furthest from the stage, are the people who really matter - the citizens of Hong Kong. Their overwhelming desire is for the curtain to come down on all this squabbling as soon as possible.

They do not need support in working out the SAR's democratic future. They are well capable of hammering out a sensible arrangement for themselves. They are also aware that the proposals will have to satisfy Beijing that Hong Kong is not about to do something crazy. They can manage that, too.

And if our friends really want to do something to help - well, how about that visa waiver. At least the Brits gave us that.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk