The madness of the anti-Manila brigade
Regina Ip says the call for sanctions against the Philippines for its president's refusal to apologise for the 2010 Manila tragedy betrays a troubling detachment from reality
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Following Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino in Indonesia earlier this month, the hyperbolic denunciations heaped on the government are a looking-glass through which Hong Kong people can see their self-centredness and detachment from reality.
There is a marked difference in reaction to this incident between local residents with international exposure and those apparently without. The former, including some columnists and readers of this newspaper, dismissed Hong Kong people's calls for reprisals as "farcical" and "idiotic", while the latter carried on pushing the government to get tough on the Philippines by banning Filipino maids, or imposing trade and economic sanctions, or both.
The reality is that Hong Kong, not being an independent country, has historically imposed sanctions only at the behest of its sovereign power, whether in compliance with resolutions of the UN Security Council or as part of its sovereign power's unilateral actions against another state or non-state territory.
Moreover, as a member of the World Trade Organisation, Hong Kong is bound by its rules not to impose trade restrictions on fellow members, save in accordance with provisions making exceptions to safeguard "essential security interests". The Manila hostage crisis of August 2010, though resulting in the tragic death of eight Hong Kong citizens and severe injuries to several others, would hardly justify invoking such provisions.
As one of the earliest members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, Hong Kong enjoys equal status with other members in discussing Apec issues. However, raising non-economic issues, such as seeking an apology and compensation from a head of state, is not strictly part of Apec's agenda. Bilateral meetings on non-economic issues between heads of state are often held on the margins of Apec's "leaders' meeting", but agreement to hold such meetings is purely discretionary. Hong Kong, as the demandeur of a bilateral meeting to discuss a botched rescue three years ago which the Philippine president clearly wished to "put behind" him, had few levers at its disposal.
Given Aquino's hard line, in pursuing this "mission impossible" Hong Kong was not helped by the fact that it had no representation in Indonesia, no troops on the ground who could help set up informal bilateral meetings ahead of Leung's arrival, or conduct behind-the-scenes lobbying in the Philippines to soften Aquino's stance.
Even if, in the future, the government is persuaded to put money behind its efforts to strengthen its external relations, it is hamstrung by a lack of the equivalent of a "foreign service corps" - a body of elite officers willing to serve Hong Kong's interests overseas, regardless of Hong Kong's lack of "muscle" while acting on its own.
As for other possible sanctions such as the suspension of civil aviation talks, it is understood that such talks have more or less ground to a halt since 2008, as there are few demands for further expansion of such services from the Philippines.
The banning of domestic helpers from the Philippines would certainly hurt Hong Kong's middle class as much as the Philippines, quite apart from the fact that it would be morally wrong to vent Hong Kong people's fury on the maids who played no part in the Manila tragedy.
The only "weapon" which the Hong Kong government could invoke fairly readily is a unilateral decision to suspend its visa-free arrangement for visitors from the Philippines, since there is no formal bilateral agreement between Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The Philippines could instantly retaliate by doing the same in respect of Hong Kong visitors, the numbers of which have been dwindling in the past three years. But as visitors from the Philippines have been rising - totalling over 700,000 last year - our own tourism industry would definitely be hurt in some way.
Obnoxious though it might sound to many angry Hong Kong citizens, who have been whipped up by the doctrine of hatred of limelight-seeking politicians, Aquino does have a point in drawing a distinction between an act of state, in the form of a crime committed by a state employee, and a private act, in the form of a killing frenzy committed by a deranged former policeman.
Naturally, if Aquino was big-hearted enough, he could have expressed his heartfelt sorrow over the tragic loss of lives on his territory, arising from a blatant mishandling of a relatively simple hostage situation by policemen in his capital.
If the city of Manila, which has oversight over its policemen, is sincere about apologising to Hong Kong people for the sufferings inflicted, and is willing to work out a decent offer of compensation, the victims' families are well advised to accept the apology, and draw a line under this tragedy.
But chances are that the politicians who have been goading the victims to take their complaints to the limit and beyond will not let go, with the result that the suffering will be aggravated, while a presidential or national apology will remain as elusive as ever - at least while Aquino remains in office.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party