SCMP Saturday, April 7, 2001

Explosive Sino-US events a bit of a yawn for HK


Even as the future of Sino-US relations hangs in the balance this week, local public opinion - as reflected on popular morning radio talk shows - seemed more concerned with mundane matters.
Rather than worrying about the diplomatic crisis triggered by last Sunday's mid-air collision between a United States spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea, most callers were only interested in discussing domestic issues, such as increased bank charges, teachers barred from photocopying notes because of the new copyright law, leakage of public examination papers and Pacific Century CyberWorks' falling stock price.
Although Hong Kong is the only part of China where people have unrestricted access to the international media, as well as the right to speak their minds freely, local residents showed relatively little interest in the drama unfolding on Hainan Island, barely an hour's flying time from Hong Kong.
Social scientists said such disinterest was the latest example of a general lack of "international vision" among local people and political parties.
"Hong Kong people are notorious for a lack of vision, a lack of interest in international affairs," said Ivan Choy Tze-keung, a lecturer in applied social studies at the City University of Hong Kong. "It only becomes ironic when our Chief Executive starts to boast about developing Hong Kong into an international city.
"Our people do not possess the quality of being citizens of an international city. They just do not bother to care about what is happening outside Hong Kong. They like reading entertainment magazines."
Sociologist professor Lau Siu-kai, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, expressed similar sentiments: "It would be abnormal to see Hong Kong people show strong feelings about the Sino-US diplomatic crisis."
This lack of popular interest leaves local politicians with little reason to take a strong stance on the issue. Despite a few protests outside the US Consulate General, major political parties have remained largely quiet - partly because it poses a dilemma for both the democratic and pro-Beijing camps.
"If most people don't care, there is no incentive for the politicians to act to please their voters," said Mr Choy. "The pro-Beijing camp is also in a very difficult situation. They have to follow strictly the central Government's line. But if they over-react, they will only make themselves look silly, while if they are not strong enough, they may be seen as not patriotic enough."
Professor Lau said the Democratic Party had also been placed in a difficult position and had failed the "tough test" the crisis had presented for them.
While pro-Beijing politicians and unionists accused the US of "hegemonism" and led small-scale protests outside the Garden Road consulate, the Democratic Party confined itself to a cautiously worded statement expressing "concerns" about the incident.
Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, who has close ties in US political circles, was reported to have unsuccessfully tried to tone down this press statement still further.
"The cause of the incident is not clear," he was quoted as having said in the internal party meeting that finalised its wording. But the Democratic Party refused to discuss individual members' stances on the issue.
"It was a silly move by the Democratic Party, and the outcome was even worse than had it not commented on the issue at all," said Professor Lau. "The simple rule is: if you do not have strong reaction, do not issue any statement. And do not try to detach yourself and comment on a national matter as if you are just an onlooker."
Analysts said it was the latest example of the Democratic Party missing an easy opportunity to demonstrate its patriotic credentials to Beijing. After the Nato bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia two years ago, although Mr Lee led a group of Democrats in protest outside the US Consulate, the party issued a mild statement which concentrated on calling for a thorough investigation, even as other parties were roundly condemning the attack. And in a subsequent Legislative Council debate on the issue, Mr Lee expressed sorrow for the loss of life but chose to refer to the incident as a case of "Nato mistargeting" - the same term used by the US.
In a separate motion debate in June 1999, Democratic legislators also had their patriotism questioned after they declined to support a motion condemning the Cox Report's allegations of mainland spying as unsubstantiated.
Ng Kang-chung is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.