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Reflections: Unlevel pegging

Wee Kek Koon

 

Many Hongkongers were offended by the protocol arrangements for the meeting between Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Indonesia earlier this month. Aquino was seated on his own on one side of the room, as befits a head of state, while Leung was seated at the head of a row, with two members of his staff. Even to the diplomatically untrained eye, the message was obvious: this wasn't a meeting of equals. Unlike Aquino, Leung is neither the head of state nor head of government of a sovereign nation, although the SAR's putative leader is given the same treatment as presidents and prime ministers on certain occasions. So, Hongkongers felt put out, especially with the 2010 Manila hostage incident casting a pall over Hong Kong-Philippines relations.

Qing-dynasty China's diplomatic spats with European nations over protocol are well-documented, the most famous incident coming during the British mission to China in 1792, when Lord Macartney refused to kowtow to the Qianlong Emperor. Following China's humiliating defeat in the first opium war in 1842, the emperors couldn't very well demand that foreign diplomats prostrate themselves before the imperial presence, and so they simply refused to receive them. It was only in 1873 that foreign diplomats were finally given an audience with the Tongzhi Emperor, and they bowed, rather than kowtowed, in greeting.

 

 

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