SCMP Thursday, September 27, 2001

Unfriendly fire

Hong Kong authorities have become casualties in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States. A US newspaper has opened fire on the SAR Government for what it deems to be a cool response to the September 11 tragedies.
In an editorial of September 18 headlined "Business as Usual", The Asian Wall Street Journal criticised senior Hong Kong officials for falling pitifully short with their gestures of condolence. "Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who lived in the US for a decade," the paper remarked, "noted his regret but did little else . . . While moments of silence were observed around the world, Hong Kong kept right on buzzing."
Meanwhile, Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung was denounced as more concerned about losses in exports than human lives. "At least Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had the good manners to condemn the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and sympathise with the victims," the Journal said.
Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing continued trading as normal the day after the attacks. No speech, no prayer, no ceremony. Not until September 17 did it dawn on management that the stock and futures exchanges should at least observe a minute's silence. But the belated gesture smacked of formalism and failed to impress people as a sincere memorial for the victims.
This is not the first time Hong Kong authorities have been accused of being slow to react to major international conflicts. In fact, their ambiguous stance towards major international events dates back to colonial days, when Hong Kong officials kept a low profile during both the Falkland Islands and Gulf wars. They did the same after the change in sovereignty, over the 1990 US-led Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and, earlier this year, the loss of a PLA jet fighter on our own doorstep to an American surveillance plane.
The SAR Government has regularly tried to distance itself from its sovereign master, be it Beijing or London, as far as complicated international conflicts are concerned. So the Journal was stretching the facts when it suggested the SAR was acting to appease the central Government. "This isn't, we should stress, just a case of insensitivity or bad manners. The co-ordinated low-key response from Hong Kong was likely calculated to please Beijing," the paper concluded. But its leader writer overlooked the reality that Hong Kong officials have always adopted a low-key approach towards international clashes, irrespective of which country was involved.
Insufficient though the latest responses might appear, the Government has actually done more than it would normally in such cases. Mr Tung wrote to President George W. Bush the day after the attacks. He also told reporters that "terrorism is not acceptable". This was preceded by a statement, issued on behalf of Mr Tung by his Information Co-ordinator, Stephen Lam Sui-lung. Mr Tung also signed the book of condolence at the US Consulate.
Meanwhile, Mr Tung's right-hand man, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was trapped in Washington when the tragedy happened. The Chief Secretary for Administration said from the US capital: "I am deeply saddened and aggrieved at such a terrible loss of life. We express our profound sympathy for the American people. Terrorist attacks of any such kind are abhorrent to human decency."
So it is not exactly fair to condemn Hong Kong officials for having failed to condemn terrorism, though whether their wording could be stronger is a matter of judgment.
When Mr Leung spoke to reporters on his return from Shanghai, his two bosses had already made clear where the SAR stood. Three other statements had also been issued regarding air traffic, security measures and information lines. It was therefore only natural for the Financial Secretary to focus on his own portfolio. One might pick bones with him for being tactless, but questions about the impact of the attacks on Hong Kong's exports, currency and the economy in general were what reporters hurled at him.
The Journal was shooting below the hip to highlight the personal connections of Mr Tung and Mr Leung with the US in a bid to ridicule their alleged insensitivity. One can only speculate at the motive behind the Journal's editorial, but the article is certainly US-centric.
Meanwhile, the local media betray a bias of their own. Increasingly, there is a tendency to equate any US counterstrike with the terrorist acts.
There is no denying that America's Middle East policy is biased towards Israel and has resulted in protracted suffering for the Palestinians and many Arabs in the region. America's bombings of Iraq and Kosovo are bound to have resulted in civilian casualties. For Chinese, the "unintentional" US-led Nato bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia and America's spying missions along China's coast are acts of provocation.
That said, these military confrontations pale in comparison with the latest terrorist atrocities. The latter are irrational, inhumane and without rules. They are acts of insanity that defy all basic morality. Problematic American foreign policies should not be used to justify terrorism.
Unfortunately, most people in Hong Kong do not seem to appreciate this basic difference. Less than half of local residents support the current US-led military campaign against Afghanistan, according to opinion polls reported in Chinese-language newspapers. Anti-American sentiment is apparently as prevalent in Hong Kong as on the mainland.
Many in cultural and intellectual circles have been hiding their anti-US stance behind "objectivity" and "fairness", arguing the Americans are reaping the bitter fruit they have sowed. Others speculate that Osama bin Laden and his followers might not be responsible for the attacks. To back their scepticism, they note that although the US intelligence network failed to detect the attacks in advance, US officials adamantly asserted less than 48 hours later that bin Laden was the culprit. Pundits might like to stress their neutrality, but impartiality in the face of evil is tantamount to injustice.
All humankind dreams of peace. However, any hint of sympathy towards terrorism will only lead to more barbaric acts. Zero tolerance is the only acceptable policy.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and publisher.