Leung Chun-ying

Mainland trade missions to stand up for Hong Kong

The city's soon-to-be-five trade missions north of the border will help ease cross-border tensions, and aid Hongkongers in trouble

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 4:58am

Hong Kong's growing network of trade missions on the mainland will be at the forefront of government efforts to ease cross-border tensions.

They will play a key part in what Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying calls "internal diplomacy".

Part of that is explaining and standing up for Hong Kong's cultural and economic identity, said Joyce Tam Wai-yee, head of the Shanghai trade office.

"If Hong Kong continues to be a separate economy as guaranteed under the Basic Law, we need to have our presence to say we are economically quite separate from China," she said.

The other part, as Leung has said more than once, is to show that more economic co-operation will be mutually beneficial.

"If Hong Kong's economy grows faster, we will have more resources to resolve some deep-rooted problems in the city, such as poverty, housing and environment," he said in June.

Leung wants to strengthen the city's economic and trade offices on the mainland, of which there are currently four, with a fifth due to open.

A senior government official said this was not only important for "internal diplomacy", but would make Hong Kong better prepared for new and possibly unexpected political, economic and social developments under the nation's new leadership.

The government, this official said, needed to better understand the new leaders' thinking, and the city needed people who could better explain to those leaders and to local officials the true feelings of Hongkongers and the city's values as a way to enhance mutual understanding.

There is growing disquiet in Hong Kong about the city's identity and its relationship with the mainland. This has been stoked by controversy over issues including national education lessons, cross-border parallel traders and mainland investors snapping up property in the city.

In what has been a critical few weeks in Hong Kong's relationship with the mainland, a small number of protesters have at times waved colonial-era flags and chanted slogans demanding the city's independence, drawing rebukes from the mainland.

So heated did the atmosphere become that Hu Jintao made what was seen as an unusual reference to Hongkongers' pride in their national identity in his opening speech to the 18th Communist Party congress, which wrapped up last week.

As well as representing Hong Kong interests, the city's four trade offices, in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and Guangdong, have taken on a quasi-consular role, Tam, of the Shanghai office, said. "It is [Hongkongers'] expectation that they can access the Hong Kong connection, so there is always a role for us there," she said.

The Guangdong office alone handled more than 300 requests for assistance from Hongkongers in distress in the 15 months to September. The Beijing and Shanghai offices also provided assistance to many Hong Kong residents over trade disputes and legal matters.

"As long as we have economic and trade relations with a place, we will have Hong Kong enterprises and people there," Tam said, and the offices had to take care of them.

The debate over identity in Hong Kong flared up again last week with the release of a Chinese University survey which showed 65.2 per cent of 816 respondents saw themselves either purely as Hongkongers or as primarily a Hong Kong person, with their Chinese identity as a secondary element. This was the highest percentage since the survey started in 1996.

After criticism by the party mouthpiece Global Times, Anthony Fung Ying-him, director of Chinese University's Centre for Communication and Public Opinion, defended the survey as an important measure of the city's sentiments on identity at a critical time.

"It's a description of what people are saying," Fung said. "We just want to present the facts."

Additional reporting by Jolie Ho