It is inappropriate for a foreign consul general in Hong Kong to make irresponsible and unwarranted remarks on such internal affairs of China." So said the foreign ministry's commission in Hong Kong. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Wasn't that what the current foreign ministry commissioner, Song Zhe, said recently to the newly arrived American consul general, Clifford Hart?
Actually, it wasn't. It was said in January 1999 by the commission's spokesman after Richard Boucher, then US consul general, gave his views on Hong Kong 18 months after the handover.
Chinese officials have for many years accused US diplomats of interference in China's internal affairs. The charges have increased in frequency. The South China Morning Post reported on August 31 that the commission had issued three warnings "directed at US representatives in recent months". The first two were when Stephen Young, who retired in July, was consul general.
The commission's website shows that the American consulate has, indeed, been the recipient of special attention. Song has, since early July, met four new consuls general in Hong Kong; those of Romania, Germany, Colombia and the US.
The ministry website provides identical one-line reports on the first three meetings. The two sides exchanged views on bilateral relations and co-operation involving Hong Kong. The report on Song's meeting with Hart, however, was much longer. Song, it said, briefed Hart on "the successful implementation of the 'one country, two systems' policy in Hong Kong".
"Song emphasised that the development of Hong Kong's political system is its own internal affair," according to the website. "Foreign governments and officials should not interfere."
That is the nub of the matter. China feels that American diplomats, by simply voicing their opinions, have been interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs. But the American approach is to be open. Young, at his farewell meeting with the press on July 18, praised Deng Xiaoping's concept of "one country, two systems" and called it a "very brilliant and far-reaching idea".
That statement probably didn't upset Song, but then Young went on to urge "my friends here in Hong Kong to begin the dialogue amongst the various parties" regarding universal suffrage elections for the chief executive in 2017. He said he was encouraged by the meeting between Zhang Xiaoming , director of the liaison office, and "a broad spectrum of legislators" and called it "a good start".
Those words seem innocuous, yet it is precisely such words that upset Chinese officials. Foreign diplomats, it seems, simply shouldn't say anything about Hong Kong's political development.
This is similar to the foreign ministry's attempt for years to get the US embassy in Beijing to stop making measurements of air pollution available to the public.
In Hong Kong, it seems, the foreign ministry wants the American consulate to keep its opinions to itself. This is not possible. Telling Americans not to talk is like King Canute telling the tide not to come in.