Tracking down China's official line

MEMBERS of the Preliminary Working Committee (PWC) of the Special Administrative Region have often complained about being misrepresented, quoted out of context and misunderstood by the public.

In his column in this paper two days ago, PWC member Tsang Yok-sing compared the situation to that of 'one dog barking at a shadow, whereupon a hundred others bark at its sound'.

Mr Tsang, who is also at the helm of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, put the blame on those who did not bother to check the facts before lashing out at the PWC. 'The shadow seen by the jittery dog,' he added, 'was nothing more than its own imagination.' Mr Tsang's comment is typical of the view shared by other PWC members. They seem to believe that the committee has been suffering an image problem primarily because of deep-rooted public bias against it.

To borrow the analogy of the shadow and the dogs, it is not that there are too many nervous dogs on the streets; the real issue is there are too many conspicuous shadows in the Chinese camp.

Various Chinese officials, some of them at senior levels, have been making contentious remarks about Hong Kong. These range from a local Xinhua (New China News Agency) functionary's remarks over the recognition of mainland academic credentials, to the head of the Public Security Ministry's distinction between patriotic and unpatriotic triad members.

A Shenzhen municipal spokesman also put his foot in it a couple of months ago, when he issued a personal warning, allegedly under the influence of alcohol, to the boss of the Oriental Daily group.

These Chinese officials' remarks were either clarified or denied, but members of the public in Hong Kong had ample reason to take them as official.

Most of the 40-odd ministries and commissions under the Chinese State Council have something to do with Hong Kong. There are even two Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Offices under the umbrella of the Central Government. One of them, led by Lu Ping, reports directly to the State Council, while the other is affiliated to the Foreign Ministry.

Senior officials of these government units are often interviewed by the media to speak on matters of concern in the territory. It is not unusual for some of them to retract what they have told the press after second thoughts. The issue has been further complicated by the ever-expanding number of different advisers appointed by Beijing.

Delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) aside, China has named about 400 other community leaders as District Affairs Advisers, Hong Kong Affairs Advisers and members of the PWC.

Journalists have relatively easy access to PWC members, particularly during their regular working group meetings in Beijing. It is, of course, easy to identify an official decision taken by the PWC. But in many cases, reporters have found it hard to draw a line between what constitutes a premature disclosure, consensus among sub-group members, a mainstream view within the committee, a recommendation by a working group or simply personal comments by individual members.

The question of who can speak on behalf of the Chinese authorities on sensitive topics about Hong Kong was tackled at the highest level in Beijing more than a decade ago. On the morning of May 20, 1984, a five-minute photo call was arranged before a session between Deng Xiaoping and the Hong Kong and Macau delegates to the NPC and CPPCC.

To the surprise of the reporters, Mr Deng volunteered to use the occasion to clarify who, within the Chinese bureaucracy, could represent the Chinese Government as far as Hong Kong was concerned.

Mr Deng asserted that only himself, the then Premier Zhao Ziyang, Director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Ji Pengfei and the minister and spokesmen of the Foreign Ministry on Hong Kong topics could speak officially.

The paramount leader also added that he believed Xu Jiatun, director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua at that time, would also toe the party line and would not speak nonsense.

Statements made by others, Mr Deng declared, were invalid and unofficial. His outburst was aimed at two former NPC vice-chairmen, Geng Biao and Huang Hua.

Mr Geng, who doubled as Minister of Defence, had suggested that China would not deploy any troops in Hong Kong. Mr Huang, on the other hand, had said that Hong Kong could be represented in the Chinese mission to the United Nations.

But the ground rule laid down by the elder statesman has obviously been forgotten in recent years.

One after the other, PWC members have fumbled over their remarks on a wide spectrum of issues, including how the Land Fund should be taken over from the Hong Kong Government and who should fund the campaign to publicise the future SAR passports.

In its last plenary session in Beijing in July, the PWC sought to regain some control over the flow of information to the media by recommending that its five sub-groups should only hand out prepared press statements. The idea that the sub-group convenors should not go beyond their written statements was severely criticised by reporters on the political beat.

The PWC's proposed defensive move at least shows that members are aware of the problem arising from too many spokespeople on a committee. The PWC members do not appear to be adhering to the rule, though it is not clear whether it is because of objections from the media.

A far better option would be for the committee to follow the example of the Legislative Council and open up its proceedings to the media and the public as far as possible.

The simple truth is that the shadow will disappear when there is proper illumination.