A Matter of Perspective

What you make of the play sometimes depends on where you are sitting in the theatre.

Watching political leaders and their representatives from three different national governments spar gently over the future of political reform in Hong Kong could make the ordinary citizen’s head spin. There is action all over the stage and indeed some in the stalls.

British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire writing from London offered help to Hong Kong in taking forward the democratisation promised to us for the Chief Executive election in 2017 and the LegCo elections in 2016 and 2020.

No doubt viewed from the UK seats this looked like a genuine and well-intended offer of assistance. For those of us with longer memories, it seemed a bit much coming from a government which had done everything possible to deny Hong Kong meaningful progress in representative government for the best part of a century and a half, and whose conscience was pricked only at the last moment when the handover was imminent.

For reasons only he and his advisers will know, Swire did not refer in his comments to the Joint Declaration which might at least have given him some cover bearing in mind that the UK was a co-signer with China and the agreement was registered as a treaty with the United Nations.

As it was he was left defenceless when Beijing entered stage left and went on the counter attack.

Next on stage was the new American Consul General in our city Clifford Hart. In his first public speech since taking up his post two months ago he commended the Chinese Government for having invented the concept of "one country, two systems" and for promising Hong Kong democratic progress. Hart no doubt was trying to navigate carefully between the Scylla of poking China in the eye and the Charybdis of moving away from his country’s previous supportive position.

To some extent he succeeded because he made a point of not endorsing any particular model and stressing that every community was entitled to find its own path and form of democracy.

In the US seats this probably came over as – if anything -- a bit cautious. But the reference to a "genuine choice" in the coming CE election gave the Beijing all the ammunition it needed to shoot back.

And the pledge to continue to speak up for America’s core values might come across to some as a bit hypocritical. After all one wonders how many public lectures on democracy King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has had to endure in recent years. Ah but the Saudis have oil….

In response to a question about the possibility of visa waiver for Hong Kong passport holders, Hart said US legislation as it stood did not allow this for part of a country so amendment would be needed and this took time. He conveniently skipped over the fact that Taiwan passport holders already enjoy visa waiver, which kind of undermines the "one China" idea. Details, details.

How does all this come across to the audience in the Chinese seats? A fair observer would have to admit that this section of the audience is hyper-critical and over-sensitive. Even bland and mild expressions of goodwill by Hong Kong friends around the world are interpreted as interference in the country’s internal affairs. Perhaps we should be a little tolerant of this reaction. Memories of China’s century of weakness and domination by foreign powers still linger.

Up in the balcony in the seats furthest from the stage are the people who really matter – the citizens of Hong Kong. Their overwhelming desire is for the curtain to come down on all this squabbling as soon as possible.

They do not need support in working out the SAR’s democratic future. They are worldly and politically mature and well capable of hammering out a sensible arrangement for themselves. They are also very well aware that the proposals which emerge from internal consultation will have to satisfy the Central Government that Hong Kong is not about to do something crazy. They can manage that too.

And if our friends really want to do something to help – well how about that visa waiver. At least the Brits gave us that.