A friendly reminder to Wang Guangya after criticism of milk powder policy

Alice Wu says that Wang Guangya needs reminding about 'one country, two systems' following his criticism of our milk powder policy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 September, 2013, 2:48am

It's only fair to return the favour of friendly reminders that the director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya, purportedly gave to a group of Hong Kong political appointees.

Wang reportedly hinted at Beijing's displeasure over Hong Kong's handling of the baby formula issue, urging the delegation to improve their political sensitivity when it comes to policies that affect the mainland. At first glance, it seems a sensible - and friendly - reminder, since political sensitivity, communication and impact assessment are all part of the policymaking process.

But if we recall what Wang said two years ago - only one of a series of controversial statements he has made as head of the affairs office - we can't help but be stumped. In 2011, Wang provocatively chastised the Hong Kong civil service for knowing only how to "listen to the boss", with no mind of its own. Yet, two years later, Hong Kong officials apparently did not listen hard enough to "the boss".

Under "one country, two systems", the politics of who's the boss is complex, to say the least.

One might argue that the formula restrictions were imposed precisely because, under "one country, two systems", special administrative regions cannot "meddle" in the affairs of the mainland - a state of affairs Wang heartily approved of when he said in December 2010 that "Well water [Hong Kong] should not intrude into river water [mainland China]".

Wang's comment was targeted at the Hong Kong critics of the mainland's imprisonment of milk activist Zhao Lianhai. The scandal of China's melamine-laced milk was, of course, the real cause of formula restrictions around the world. It is mainland China's inadequate food safety policy that has caused the collapse in consumer confidence, forced people to seek food for their babies outside the mainland, made parallel trading lucrative, and allowed suppliers to take advantage of the shortages.

Wang's show of displeasure might have been better directed at mainland food safety officials.

By contrast, Hong Kong's baby formula restriction is, in fact, a textbook case of good policymaking. Given the political parameters, the fact that supply shortages were threatening local babies' health, and the growing public discontent, it was one of Hong Kong's most targeted and effective policies in years.

After all, didn't Wang warn that livelihood issues could become political problems if they weren't handled properly? The formula shortage was clearly a livelihood issue. One could say Hong Kong was heeding his advice.

It would be nicer still if Wang were to be reminded of an earlier time when the "well water, river water" proverb was used in the context of "one country, two systems". In December 1989, then president and party general secretary Jiang Zemin pointedly noted, in a meeting with a special envoy of the British prime minister, that the expression was often misunderstood. Well water should not pollute river water, and river water should not pollute well water, the full expression goes. In other words, it works both ways. Wang should remember that.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA