The Big Lychee

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By Neil Honeyman

An Independent View

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


HONG Kong is a former British dependency on the southeastern coast of China that was returned to China in 1997. The area comprises Hong Kong Island ceded by China in 1841; the Kowloon peninsula ceded in 1860; and the New Territories, additional areas of the mainland that were leased for 99 years in 1898.

By 1984, the expiration of the New Territories lease in 1997 was becoming an issue. Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, not noted for her unassertiveness, initially suggested that the lease be extended. “Ok?”

“Not ok!” demurred Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Intensive negotiations between the British and Chinese ensued.

In 1985, the negotiations concluded with the production of a Joint Agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) on the one side and the People’s Republic of China (China) on the other.

The result of this agreement was that Hong Kong would be returned to China on 30 June 1997. Hong Kong would then be designated as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR), the governance of which would be the same as when Hong Kong was a British administered territory and which would remain unchanged for at least 50 years (until 2047). China has adhered to this agreement.

Chris Patten was the last British-appointed Chief Executive (1992-1997). In 2010, Donald Tsang was the Chief Executive. He was the de facto Head of State.

On 23 August 2010, the news broke that a busload of Hong Kong tourists had been taken hostage by an aggrieved ex-police officer who had been fired.

Donald Tsang who, after all, had a responsibility to do what he could to protect Hong Kong citizens, phoned PNoy. Whether PNoy refused to take the call or whether a gatekeeper refused to pass the call to PNoy is not clear. What is clear, however, is that Tsang was not able to reach PNoy.

Subsequently, whatever negotiations that took place between those who had authority (this, too, is not altogether clear) and the hostage taker broke down. Eight Hong Kong tourists and the hostage-taker were killed.

Whether we are basically in favor or against PNoy’s government, there is widespread agreement that he has not been well-served by his presidential Spokespeople.

The aftermath of what is universally called the “bungled” incident was also a fiasco.

When the Press asked Malacañang why PNoy did not take Tsang’s call, the answer was pert “Why should he? Tsang is only the equivalent of a provincial governor.” Anyone who knows anything about the Chinese psyche would recognize that such a comment as well as being factually wrong (Tsang was de facto Head of State) is unbelievably crass. The loss of face involved is enormous.

Tsang should have been able to express directly to PNoy whatever he wanted to say which could be (a) please do everything you can to ensure the safety of my citizens (b) please do not let the negotiations with the hostage taker break down (c) is there anything I (Tsang) can do to help?

PNoy may not have been able to give a substantive reply but genuine reassurances that the pre-eminent objective was to defuse the hostage crisis without bloodshed would have been helpful. An offer of frequent communications would have been an added courtesy.

After the hostage tragedy occurred, Tsang was visibly very angry. Not only was the hostage crisis bungled but the subsequent pronouncements have been bungled as well.

An immature quasi-macho “why should we apologize?” is not helpful.

An apology is not inappropriate whenever there is a regrettable occurrence which, if we had a second chance, we would have done things differently.

In 2012, PNoy went to China and met Prime Minister Wen. Reportedly, PNoy was surprised that Wen brought up the hostage-taking incident. If true, this indicates that PNoy had not been properly briefed by his staff.

Hong Kong seems to be feeding on its own anger. This is unfortunate. The recent cancellation of visa-free travel to Hong Kong for Filipino diplomatic passport holders shows that Hong Kong does not consider the hostage-taking incident and its aftermath to be “case closed.”

Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez said the sanction (cancellation of visa-free travel) “is unfortunate because a substantive closure on the hostage crisis had already been arrived at three years ago with the previous Hong Kong government and the victims, as well as their families.” What closure? There was no closure. Neither the Hong Kong government nor the victims’ families have ever said there was closure. It is not for the DFA to unilaterally state that there is closure. This is sloppy diplomacy and only exacerbates the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the tragic fiasco.

What next?

The Philippines must now seek closure, otherwise Hong Kong will gradually upgrade the sanctions it imposes on us. We need high quality negotiators who can establish what redress Hong Kong is seeking and what we can do to accommodate that redress.

***

“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” - John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) Inaugural address 20 January 1961

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on February 19, 2014.

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