Leung Chun-ying

Where to draw line of communication

The authorities must be careful not to blur line between informing and seeking approval

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 5:06am

The date March 25 may not ring any bells, but it was a special day for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. On that date a year ago, he was elected to the highest job in town. But Leung is less likely to be celebrating than pondering how to handle the increasing number of hot potatoes falling into his lap.

Just a day ahead of his first anniversary, Beijing's senior officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs arrived in neighbouring Shenzhen for a meeting with pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmakers.

There, Qiao Xiaoyang announced Beijing's bottom line for the 2017 chief executive election, saying that whoever "confronts" the central government could not be eligible for the job. The remark started a huge fuss at a time when Leung is being urged to launch a public consultation on electoral reform.

Another interesting episode also occurred in Shenzhen. Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Wang Guangya told attendants he had difficulty securing baby formula for his four-month-old grandchild after the two-tin export limit was introduced in Hong Kong.

Even more interesting was that Wang's revelation that Leung had called to inform him a day ahead that Hong Kong was to implement a special buyers' stamp duty on non-residents.

It is a measure apparently aimed at deterring wealthy mainland property buyers from flocking to town. This surge in buyers has been cited as a major factor in pushing up local property prices.

Wang's seemingly casual remark about getting milk powder for his grandson might not be that casual, especially considering the background that Hong Kong did not - or forgot to - inform Beijing about the milk powder ban.

The concept of a "notification mechanism" between Hong Kong and the mainland was raised after the 2003 Sars outbreak.

The mainland was blamed at the time for deliberately trying to hide the seriousness of the epidemic until it was no longer able to cover it up. This led to a failure on both sides to co-operate early to more effectively battle the deadly virus.

Since then, Hong Kong and the mainland have reached an understanding that both would notify each other in advance on major policy changes and important health and social issues that concern cross-border relations. It thus came as a surprise to many on the mainland that they found out about the milk powder ban only through the Hong Kong press.

While mainland officials like Wang have expressed their discontent in a relatively polite and subtle manner, the mainland media has been more direct and critical. First, the official People's Daily-affiliated Global Times, slammed the ban as a "UN sanction". Then came a major mainland media organisation's refusal to interview Hong Kong officials who had intended to elaborate on the ban.

It was understood that a Hong Kong-based mainland reporter from a major Beijing media outlet politely told government press officers that they wanted to further observe the impact of the new policy before producing a news package on the topic.

The real reason was that his supervisor in Beijing had told him there was no need to "entertain" Hong Kong officials as it was "pointless" for a post-implementation explanation.

Our officials in Tamar certainly did not expect a negative reply when they sought the assistance of the mainland media, which was supposed to be friendly and supportive of the government.

This could have been an isolated incident, but it showed something of a souring in Hong Kong-mainland relations.

Maintaining a smooth and effective "notification mechanism" is vital in properly handling cross-border issues - or as Leung terms it, "internal diplomacy". But both Hong Kong and Beijing must be very careful not to blur the clear line between "informing" the mainland and "seeking approval" from Beijing on major decisions in order to keep the "one country, two systems" policy intact. Unfortunately, Leung's call to Wang has caused some concern about where that line should be drawn.