Pan-democrats and Beijing need to find a way to talk
Controversy over the role of the liaison office is one significant barrier to better communication
Ask Hong Kong's pan-democrats whether they want to communicate with Beijing and the answer is a resounding yes. But ask if they want to talk to Beijing's representative body here, the liaison office, and the answer will either be uncertain or a very definite no.
In recent years, relations between pan-democrats and the liaison office - often known as "Sai Wan" after the Western District neighbourhood in which it is based - have soured amid controversy over the role of the office and the question of whether it is taking a more active role in Hong Kong affairs. Many pan-democrats accuse the office of "ruling Hong Kong from Sai Wan" and find the idea of direct contact with its officials too sensitive. Liaison office officials, for their part, regard the pan-democrats' attacks on its role as an attempt to prevent it from carrying out its rightful duties.
The latest example of the conflict came when members of the Legislative Council sought to invoke its investigative powers under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance to look into the government's controversial decision to refuse a free-to-air television licence to Hong Kong Television Network. When two Beijing-loyalist lawmakers revealed they had been invited to the office for an exchange of views on the proposal - which was eventually voted down - pan-democrats accused the office of trying to influence the pair's voting intentions and of undermining the principle of "one country, two systems".
The liaison office rebutted the charges indirectly through the pages of pro-Beijing newspapers, arguing that it had a duty to liaise with people from various sectors, including lawmakers, and that an "exchange of views" did not constitute "interference". It pointed out that Hong Kong's lawmakers do not exist in a vacuum; they have exchanges with foreign legislatures and consulates, so why is contact with the liaison office taboo?
As Beijing's representative here, the liaison office carries out instructions and completes tasks assigned by the central government. How it does that is a sometimes delicate subject which is open to debate under "one country, two systems". Yet in terms of communications with the pan-democrats, the role of the liaison office is awkward, not least because the office has come to be seen as a target for protests rather than a place to meet.
But better understanding between Beijing and the pan-democrats has always been a welcome prospect for both sides and for the public. The complex nature of the relationship was apparent during two recent events with Beijing officials.
When Li Fei, head of the Basic Law Committee of the National People's Congress, came to town last month, pan-democrat lawmakers complained that only two of their number were invited to his official lunch. The office of the chief secretary, Li's host and the event's organiser, countered that the lunch was supposed to bring Li together with people from various sectors, so "space constraints" not politics kept most pan-democrats out.
The pan-democrats weren't too bothered about lunch - after all, how can you have an in-depth exchange at a gathering of more than 100 people? They just wanted a direct exchange with Li. He said he was too busy this time but was sure he would have a chance to meet them in future.
But Li's visit left Hong Kong with questions to ponder as it shapes the rules for the 2017 election for chief executive.
Before electoral reform legislation can be finalised, Beijing and the pan-democrats surely must communicate more - face to face, not via the microphone. And meeting visiting Beijing officials or heading north themselves are not the only ways pan-democrats can do so.
A few months ago, the new director of the liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming, went to lunch at Legco headquarters. He was warmly received, even if not all lawmakers agreed with what he said. For the good of Hong Kong, such exchanges with Beijing officials - visitors and those based here - are essential.
Both sides need to be more open-minded and politically flexible to work out the proper way of achieving that goal.