Lunch at the liaison office serves up political dilemmas galore
It is considered virtuous in Chinese culture for a guest to do what is convenient for their host. But when politics is at stake, respecting the "convenience" of the host could lead to mistrust and the collapse of efforts to build a relationship.
That is the likely scenario when the central government's liaison office hosts a lunch for lawmakers next week.
The lunch is due to take place at the liaison office in Sai Wan a week today at the invitation of director Zhang Xiaoming. It is a gesture of gratitude by Zhang to Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, who hosted a lunch for him at the Legco building in July, the first time since the handover a Beijing official had stepped into Legco's headquarters and met all of its members.
Beijing insists on Hong Kong's political system being executive-led and considers certain pan-democratic lawmakers to be "unfriendly" or "confrontational". The Legco building was therefore once a place no Beijing official would have wanted to be seen for fear of giving the public the impression that the central government is accepting of all lawmakers, regardless of their political stance. Zhang's lunch visit was widely seen as an attempt to break the ice.
Zhang joked at the time that his visit to Legco was not a latter-day version of the "Hongmen Feast" - a historical banquet hosted by the ancient warlord Xiang Yu for his rival Liu Bang at the Hongmen Gate. Xiang tried to kill Liu during the banquet, but Liu survived and went on to defeat his rival and become the first emperor of the Han dynasty. The term has come to refer to a seemingly friendly act with treacherous intent, or entertainment intended to humiliate the guest.
Now that it's Zhang's turn to host lunch, are pan-democrats concerned about being lured to a "Hongmen Feast" of their own? The tricky thing is, the liaison office has been imbued with too much political significance over the years, especially as a target for protests by pan-democrats.
As Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan put it: "What if protests are going on outside while we are dining inside? It will be so odd."
Lee's concerns are not without good reason: certain radical lawmakers have pledged to protest for genuine universal suffrage at the time of the lunch, while other pan-democratic parties have said that they will not enter the office, although they are not against going to a lunch hosted by the office at another venue.
But the office's propaganda head said that "a feast at home [meaning inside the office's building] shows the host's greatest sincerity towards it guests". Those comments were taken as an indication that the office had no alternative venue.
It is unfortunate that, in matters of politics, the venue can play an important and sometimes decisive role.
This time, it might simply "kill" the lunch.
The fear for the pan-democrats is that by going to the office, they could be perceived as "surrendering" to Beijing. For Zhang, moving the lunch would be seen as an unnecessary concession: Beijing would not want pan-democrats to continue using the office as a symbolic target for protests; but also it sees the lunch as a reciprocal arrangement.
Yet there is a more significant question underlining the debate: which side will take the first step towards compromise?
One unavoidable topic over lunch will be the question of universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election and Beijing's insistence on screening out any candidate deemed "unpatriotic" - a condition that is unacceptable to pan-democrats.
"Will the sky be falling if we don't go to the lunch?" asked Emily Lau Wai-hing, chairwoman of the Democratic Party, who suggested communications with Beijing could take place in other ways. She is very right indeed.
But look at the issue the other way round and the same question arises: will the sky fall if the pan-democrats do go into the liaison office for the lunch?
After all, it takes courage and wisdom for both sides to make the lunch possible if both agree it should not be a political "Hongmen Feast".