Monday, May 27, 2013

Why Hong Kong always draws me back

In Hong Kong again after a couple of years away, I am just beginning to understand just what I love about this city, and why I keep on returning – my 23rd visit in less than two decades.

I was first here in 1997, six months before the handover to China. To say the mood was tense then would have been an understatement. If Hong Kongers had had a say in their future there was little doubt they would have voted overwhelmingly to retain their links with Britain.

I remember one interview with a local businessman who savaged the 19th century British diplomats for negotiating just a 99-year lease on the New Territories in 1898.

“Why the hell couldn’t they have bought the land outright – or at least got a 999-year lease. They could have done it then when they had the power and we wouldn’t be in this mess now,” he told me then.

The man had secured exit insurance – residency status in Canada – and would use it if his worst fears of a Chinese takeover came true.  But six months later he was still there for the handover and perhaps the most poignant moment in my reporting career when Governor Chris Patten stood to attention, getting soaked in monsoon rain, as the Union flag came down for the last time at dusk on June 30, 1997.

And he was still there six months later when I returned to find out just how well the former colony was faring as a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic. The fact that the Asian Financial Crisis broke almost literally the day after the handover provided the distraction the business community needed. A crisis, but one they understood and believed they could handle

While I no longer have contact with my original interviewee, I suspect he is still in Hong Kong, his Canadian exit strategy unused and long since forgotten. The city has faced many challenges since then: SARS, which I covered extensively, bird flu and, of course the Global Financial Crisis, but its people are resilient and the feeling is that whatever obstacles are placed in their path, they will always be overcome.

Hong Kongers are willing to talk, sometimes endlessly, about their problems, China’s and the world’s. But unlike whingers elsewhere they always come up with constructive solutions.

And if that flies in the face of policies from Beijing, then so be it.

The One Country Two Systems approach for the governing of the Special Administrative Region, originally proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, is holding, but Hong Kongers are continually pushing the envelope, wanting more democracy, more human rights, more freedom to choose the path they tread.

And that’s another reason why I love the place and its people.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sharif an Asian game-changer

The resounding victory for Nawaz Sharif in the Pakistani election at the weekend may herald a subtle realignment in the Asian power game.

One of Sharif’s first statements as the margin of his win became clear was to express a wish for improved ties with his country’s long-time rival India, inviting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony. Singh, for his part, was the first national leader to congratulate him.

China, which had closely allied itself with the previous Pakistan People’s Party-led government, took much longer to offer its congratulations, the words finally coming in a news conference where Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China was willing “to continue to support Pakistan in its efforts to protect national stability and promote national development”.

In a less than gushing endorsement, the spokesman made reference to the two countries being “all-weather friends”, interpreted by some that China saw the relationship entering a squally period, while expecting it to survive.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League will not have an absolute majority in Parliament, but it will be close enough to ensure it can work with minor parties to form a government and not have to bring either the PPP or Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice Party into the coalition, leaving him virtually a free hand in the country’s foreign relations.

That could be interesting says China expert Swaran Singh of Jawaharal Nehru University in New Delhi. “After Sharif was ousted in a military coup in 1999 he appealed for help from China and was rebuffed,” Professor Singh said. “So he has bad memories.

“However, I expect he will find a way of dealing with it and in the end China doesn’t really care who is in charge.”

Even so, a rapprochement between India and Pakistan will hardly be welcome in Beijing which counted Islamabad as one of its few allies in a region growing wary of its increasing military profile.      




Thursday, May 9, 2013

Pakistani poll soaked in blood

Pakistan’s deadly election campaign is winding down with the prospect of more bloodshed to come as the nation goes to the polls at the weekend.

Almost 120 people have died in violence directly related to the election as the Pakistani Taliban continues its campaign of disruption.

And in the latest demonstration of its ability to strike whenever and wherever it wishes, Ali Haider Gilani, the son of former Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, was kidnapped on his way to a meeting.

Gilani, a candidate in the election, was abducted by a group of men riding motorcycles who killed his personal assistant and wounded a guard. Inevitably, the Taliban has been blamed.

Gilani was about to speak at what has come to be called a ‘street corner’ meeting of perhaps a few dozen people called at short notice. Large rallies, which have been a feature of past elections, have been virtually curtailed by the threat of Taliban bomb attacks.

In other developments, Imran Khan, seriously injured in an accidental fall from a makeshift platform at a rally for his Tehrik-i-Insaf Party, made a video appeal from his hospital bed, urging voters to shun politics as usual and bring about a “new Pakistan”.

Khan’s party is one of the front-runners in what is likely to boil down to a three-cornered contest with the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League.

However, there are now serious concerns that fears of violence will keep significant numbers away from polling stations, reducing the legitimacy of the outcome.

In a final bizarre twist, a rare white tiger, which has been paraded as the symbol of the Pakistan Muslim League, has died leading to anger among animal lovers and conservationists that the beast had been stressed by its constant exhibition at hot, noisy, political meetings.

Voting takes place tomorrow (May 11) but a final result will probably not be known for several days.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

What has China gained from border stand-off?

The confrontation between China and India in Jammu and Kashmir is over, with both armies agreeing to end the three-week standoff which began when Chinese troops set up a base 19 kilometres inside Indian territory.

The actual border between the two countries in this region has never been settled, but a Line of Actual Control (LAC) has been established and it is the Chinese penetration beyond it that caused the crisis.

Initially the Government in New Delhi tried to play down the incursion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling it a “localised” incident. But the attempt to blame it on a bit of adventurism by a local commander failed during negotiations when the Chinese side constantly said it had to refer back to Beijing.

If the government was trying to smooth things over the Indian public was having none of it and with the affair threatening to become a major political issue, New Delhi’s stance hardened.

The incident came shortly before several high-level contacts were due to take place between the two countries, including a visit by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to Beijing later this week and a planned visit to India by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on May 20.

If the impasse had continued it would almost certainly have meant both these meetings being cancelled, so it could well have been that Beijing was testing the water to see how far India was prepared to go to save them.

Perhaps now it has its answer. China has long protested over military activity on the Indian side of the LAC, including the building of permanent fortifications. While there has been no release on the final agreement that led to the Chinese withdrawal, observers are speculating that it included the fortifications being dismantled or at least a halt on them being extended further.

The border between India and China has been a bone of contention for decades. Talks to resolve the issue have dragged on without any sign of resolution and amid fears that China coverts large swathes of Indian territory.

New Delhi is now pinning hopes on the visit by Li being an opportunity to make progress towards a settlement but other sources predict that if the Chinese Premier has a proposal it will involve territorial concessions unacceptable to an Indian Government now just a year away from a general election.