City Beat

How Hong Kong has lost its importance in cross-strait relations

Tammy Tam looks at the blocking of Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to Hong Kong in the context of the city’s diminishing role as a cross-strait bridge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2016, 1:18am

What can Hong Kong do today when it comes to cross-strait relations?

Apparently, as a special administration region under the People’s Republic of China, the city is a sensitive political matter and even “dangerous” in the eyes of the current Tsai Ing-wen administration in Taiwan.

That was why Tsai blocked her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou’s planned visit to Hong Kong as the guest of honour at last Wednesday’s prestigious news award ceremony organised by the Society of Publishers in Asia.

It was Ma’s second failed attempt to visit his birthplace – the island’s former president from the anti-independence Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist party was born in Kwong Wah Hospital in Kowloon, thus automatically attaining the right of abode in Hong Kong, theoretically. But a quick review of his two unsuccessful attempts to visit the city speak volumes on the delicate status of post-1997 Hong Kong.

For Beijing, the handling of Taiwan affairs is a matter of the one-China principle; it’s that simple

While Ma was banned from leaving Taiwan by the office of the newly inaugurated president from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), he was also denied entry by Hong Kong back in 2005. He was then the mayor of Taipei, when the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was president.

Then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and Ma were personal friends, but that was no guarantee of anything in such a sensitive matter. Ma was supposed to come for a conference on Sino-US relations, but he revealed that two groups of people from Hong Kong had tried to persuade him not to submit his visa application – which he refused.

The government’s standard answer was “no comment on individual cases” when being grilled by the media. However, up in Beijing at the time, the National People’s Congress was to pass the country’s first anti-secession law. Ma had complained that such a move would pose a military threat to Taiwan.

Ma’s stand on the law was believed to have sunk his visa application, as Beijing would not allow Hong Kong to be used as a platform for any Taiwanese political figure to openly challenge its sovereignty claim.

For Beijing, the handling of Taiwan affairs is a matter of the one-China principle; it’s that simple. The two cases were different in nature, but carry the same message and show how the role of Hong Kong has evolved.

Historically, Hong Kong had been a “go-between” venue for cross-strait communication. “Messengers” from both sides used to meet up here for various unofficial exchanges.

After the handover, not only does Hong Kong have to seek Beijing’s approval for any official contact with Taiwan, the ups or downs of cross-strait relations have also became a key consideration in related decision-making.

This reminds me of the comment made by Lung Ying-tai, Taiwan’s culture minister under Ma’s presidency, who was once invited to be a visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong. “A rather big challenge for Hong Kong now is how to reposition its relations with Beijing,” Lung pointed out when visiting the city in late 2012. She suggested Hong Kong was no longer the go-between for cross-strait manoeuvrings, a unique and indispensible role it once played.

Lung was right in this regard. Beijing today does not have to rely on Hong Kong for cross-strait contacts, direct links between Beijing and the now-opposition KMT and other parties having long been established.

What has worried Beijing more instead in recent years is this: Hong Kong has not only failed to be a convincing showcase for Taiwan to accept “one country, two systems”, but certain local politicians, including young people, seem attracted to the island’s democratic development – some even going to the extent of direct exchanges with Taiwanese independence activists.

It is therefore not at all surprising that today, neither Beijing nor Taipei sees Hong Kong playing a significant role in drawing both sides closer.