Edward Snowden

Beijing recalling its big guns to handle a more complex city

It needs more experts to help it deal with the political, economic and diplomatic issues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 5:39am

Last week, while a 29-year-old American stole the limelight in Hong Kong and the world, a Beijing veteran on Hong Kong's political and legal affairs quietly went back to the capital from Macau.

The two men have nothing in common and the events are not connected. The timing was just a coincidence, but there are some interesting messages that can be drawn from the events.

Edward Snowden, the former CIA technical assistant, sought refuge in Hong Kong after exposing the United States National Security Agency's massive covert surveillance programme called Prism.

He chose the city because he had no reason to doubt Hong Kong's legal system, he told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview last week.

He earlier said "… Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China".

While the city buzzed with Snowden's revelations, 58-year-old Xu Ze, the former deputy director of the central government's liaison office in Macau, was transferred back to Beijing to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council which he left nine years ago.

Like his long-time former colleague Zhang Xiaoming, who is now the head of the liaison office in Hong Kong, Xu is one of the very few senior Beijing officials who have devoted his career to just one job - overseeing Hong Kong's affairs. Both Xu and Zhang are familiar with Basic Law issues as well as Hong Kong's political developments.

Back to Snowden. While he has faith in Hong Kong's legal system, the matter, however, cannot be decided just by our officials in Tamar. Beijing has a hand in deciding the fate of this whistle-blower who has been hailed by some as a hero and denounced by others as a traitor.

Meanwhile, as pointed out by the official China Daily, the issue is testing "the developing Sino-US ties". Without doubt the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and Beijing's departments concerning Hong Kong's affairs, are studying the situation.

Over the years it has become clear to Beijing that there is a growing need for more experts who can assess and adjust its policies towards the city.

It realises that Hong Kong's affairs are getting more complicated politically and economically, and now diplomatically and legally.

As a former British colony and an international city, Beijing put diplomats in charge of Hong Kong's affairs before and after the handover.

The first director of the liaison office was Jiang Enzhu. His predecessor was Zhou Nan and now the head of HKMAO is Wang Guangya. They are all professional diplomats.

Today, more old hands who know Hong Kong and who have a legal background like Xu are needed since diplomacy affects domestic issues on the mainland and in Hong Kong, and vice versa, especially in this cosmopolitan city where the rule of law is most cherished.

While the Snowden saga concerns the city's legal and judicial independence and Sino-US relations, the 2017 universal suffrage election concerns Hong Kong's democratic development and the interpretations and implementation of the Basic Law.

Beijing seems to have better understood that clarifying or debating legal concepts rather than sending out stern warnings against "confrontation with Beijing" can be more useful in dealing with the pan-democrats in the run-up to 2017.

Xu's new appointment is a sign of Beijing's new tactic of "taking one's own spear against his shield" - while the pan-democrats are asking for universal suffrage "in accordance with international standards", Beijing is insisting on one "in accordance with the Basic Law".

For this, Beijing has recalled its experts, people like Xu, back to the battlefield from the less contentious Macau. Hong Kong will surely see more heated debates in coming years.