Former Canadian diplomat calls for Beijing to be patient about Hong Kong

John Higginbotham, the country's former top envoy to Hong Kong, says the mainland's recent push for control could trigger 'destabilisation'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 5:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 5:28am

Beijing should cut the drama and exercise patience in allowing Hong Kong the chance to shape its own future, a veteran former diplomat has urged.

"We are in a dangerous period and it's up to the various parties not to play chicken," said John Higginbotham, Canada's top envoy to Hong Kong from 1989 until 1994.

In an interview with the Sunday Morning Post, he said that the timing and tone of Beijing's decision to emphasise its total control over the city could trigger "infectious destabilisation".

Higginbotham, 70, who has since left government, added that he was taken by surprise by the nature of the white paper published by the State Council last week to set the record straight on "one country, two systems".

"Patience and forbearance by the central government rather than dramatic actions have been the key to a successful transition in the past. Certain language and pressures could create the very things Beijing fears most about infectious destabilisation in Hong Kong, as a result of its own tactical actions," he said.

"China should allow Hong Kong progressive opportunities to shape its future as a unique international city to make it an even more valuable asset to China and the world. Turning it into another Chinese city is not in China's own interests."

Beijing needed to be "less demanding" over the question of the patriotism and obedience it expected of other local governments, Higginbotham said.

He said China should be prepared to live with the "hurly-burly" of Hong Kong politics if it was serious about the "one country, two systems" formula.

Hong Kong's future depended on the key stakeholders taking a deep breath now and reaching a new consensus to avoid a "train wreck", he added.

Higginbotham was speaking on his return to Hong Kong for talks on economic cooperation and development in the Arctic.

After two stints in Beijing as trade commissioner and political counsellor, Higginbotham became Canada's high commissioner in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. He left to become the No 2 at the Canadian mission in Washington, moved to the foreign affairs department as assistant deputy minister in 2000 and took up a similar posting in 2005 with Transport Canada until 2010, when he ended a 40-year civil service career.

"Coming back at another moment of crisis in governance over Hong Kong is a little bit of 'back to the future' for me. I was here when all the uncertainty over future governance structures and powerful rhetoric coming out of Beijing were at their height," he recalled of his previous time spent working in the city.

His return to Hong Kong reminded Higginbotham of the "debates, struggles and fissures of the 1990s", which triggered Ottawa's pro-immigration stance that became "a great safety valve for Hongkongers".

Hongkongers had been "superb citizens in Canada", he said.