Lamma ferry crash

Ferry collision triggered a collision of cultures

Leaders in Beijing and liaison office seemed to be queuing up to take command of ferry rescue

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 5:05am

The day after Hong Kong's worst ferry collision in four decades, the top story on China's primetime state television news, CCTV's 7pm Xinwen Lianbo, caught the eye of many in the city. It was about the Lamma ferry tragedy in which 39 people died.

The activities and edicts of state leaders are the usual CCTV headlines, but viewers soon realised why this was the top story. President Hu Jintao , Premier Wen Jiabao and leader-in-waiting Vice-President Xi Jinping had all made phone calls to Hong Kong expressing their condolences to the families of victims and "gave instructions" to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his team to spare no effort in the rescue work.

Some viewers were puzzled about why on earth Leung and his administration needed to be "instructed", since efforts were already under way. Some complained that, while it is true the central government is responsible for the foreign affairs and defence of Hong Kong according to the Basic Law, rescuing victims of a ferry accident did not fall into either of these two categories.

But were the critics being too sensitive? Had this disaster happened on the mainland, instead of a mere phone call from central government headquarters, a state leader, most properly Wen himself might have flown into the scene to "direct" the rescue works. He did just that after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and the Wenzhou high-speed-train crash in 2011.

Instructing local governments in disaster relief is common on the mainland and these "instructions" always get prominent news coverage. The CCTV headline news coverage on the Lamma ferry tragedy was just a typical news item "with Chinese characteristics".

Yet that does not make it well understood and accepted in Hong Kong. Though the attention may have been sincere, some still felt uncomfortable seeing the city's leader being "instructed".

Nevertheless, one can't jump too quickly to the simple conclusion that Beijing was being overly concerned about Hong Kong.

Such a clash of political cultures was even better illustrated by the controversy caused by the comments of Li Gang , deputy director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, after visiting victims at Queen Mary Hospital. Accompanied by Leung, he told reporters that a Guangdong salvage vessel was on standby and "can come to Hong Kong waters any time".

Isn't offering help in a disaster something natural and shouldn't it be appreciated? The offer of assistance caused heated debate in town. Some Hongkongers said their uneasiness came from the setting more than the words, with Li the first to speak, while Leung stood there looking like his subordinate.

Leung later told the South China Morning Post that he had been setting up his "operation centre" at Queen Mary Hospital long before Li arrived. He was accompanying Li to meet the media and let Li speak first out of courtesy.

It seemed neither Leung nor Li realised this particular scene - the chief executive standing behind a Beijing official speaking eloquently to the press on live TV - might upset people. They appear not to have realised the unease in Hong Kong over fears that Beijing may be trying to strengthen its influence on local affairs.

Was Li taking too high a profile? Or are some Hong Kong people too sceptical to be grateful for Beijing's concern?

What has happened in the 15 years since the handover to sour Hong Kong-mainland relations? This could well be an academic research topic. The situation definitely has gone beyond a mere cultural clash.

It involves deeply rooted ideological, political, economic and social conflicts, which are eroding the already fragile mutual trust between the two. There is a long road ahead before Leung and Beijing, and people on both sides, can work out a mutually beneficial and respectful relationship.