Day Trippers

I don’t know about you but I have been completely baffled over the recent row between Beijing and London concerning a proposed visit to our city by some members of the British Parliament.

Things got off to a bad start with the reference in one of the early headlines to visas ("Cameron steps into row over lawmakers’ visas" SCMP). A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing is quoted as saying "Whether to grant visas, and who to give them to, are the decisions of the country."

There are two things wrong with this statement: first, British passport holders do not need a visa to enter Hong Kong; secondly, under the Basic Law, control over entry to the SAR is one of the matters specifically reserved for the Hong Kong government under the proverbial "One Country, Two Systems" policy.

So the immediate reaction might be to query why someone who apparently has no authority over the subject – and clearly no knowledge about it either – is speaking to the media at all.

But the initial response may be too superficial. The British Government and Parliament do have a legitimate interest in Hong Kong affairs bearing in mind that the United Kingdom was a signatory with China to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration registered, as we all know, with the United Nations as an international treaty. So members of Parliament can reasonably argue that they want to check how the treaty is being implemented.

But did a whole group of them really have to visit in such a high profile way while Occupy Central is in progress? With emotions in the street running so high and tension over imminent clearance operations so severe, was this really the best time? Could they not have taken evidence from witnesses here by video conference, as when the last Governor Chris Patten responded recently to an inquiry by the United States Congress.

And if a site visit was deemed essential, could it not have been done in a low profile way with a handful simply slipping into the territory, visa free, to take a look around without press statements that they were on their way. Seen from this perspective, perhaps the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was not so far out of line after all (although she could clearly use a crash course in Hong Kong’s actual immigration policies).

By deciding to come to Hong Kong in their collective official capacity as the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, did the British MPs not tip the visit over the edge into the realm of foreign policy, thereby giving Beijing a legitimate locus? How would the British government have responded if the National People’s Congress had sent a delegation to the United Kingdom to take evidence under oath about how Chinese people were being treated there?

But we are straying too far from the main point. There is far too much aggravation in the air. London is being too clumsy, Beijing over sensitive. Situation normal, the cynics might say.

But was there not a much better way for Hong Kong to have handled the whole brouhaha. Our chief executive Leung Chun Ying could have issued a statement along the following lines. "Hong Kong and the United Kingdom continue to enjoy a close and friendly relationship at all levels. My own children, for example, are studying at various British universities and I own property there. We very much appreciate the interest our British friends have in our wellbeing. We understand why members of Parliament like to keep abreast of events here. However we are going through a brief period of turmoil and emotions are running high. We would not wish to inflame those sentiments further at the present time. We would therefore be grateful if the Committee would not visit Hong Kong in its official capacity until things have calmed down. If evidence needs to be taken, perhaps this could be done by video conference at the consulate. Later, when conditions have returned to normal, I would be happy to play host to Mr Ottaway and his colleagues, visiting us in their private capacities."

Does that sound too diplomatic? Isn’t the whole point of diplomacy to minimise friction and maximize points of common interest?