Chris Yeung: CY Leung’s Inner Diplomacy – Time to show its worth

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CY Leung’s inner diplomacy strategy needs to prove its worth now on the issue of cross-boundary visas.


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is known as a leading voice for bolstering ties between Hong Kong and the other parts of mainland China, or nei jiao (內交), which literally means “inner diplomacy.” Since taking power in 2012, he and his top aides including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor have been busy knocking on the doors of local governments, talking to officials and looking for cooperation opportunities. Against that background, it is intriguing that Leung’s “inner diplomacy” has failed him to defuse a burning cross-border crisis. The row over mainland visitors and parallel traders has come to a head.

This week saw lingering tensions over the influx of mainland visitors and parallel traders grow ugly and violent. It came after a pledge by Leung to seek room for putting more restrictions over the controversial multiple-entry permit scheme for Shenzhen residents to help lessen the inconvenience caused to people’s daily life.

He made the promise before he travelled to Beijing to attend the annual National People’s Congress that began on March 5, during which he planned to hold talks with Beijing officials on issues including mainland visitors. But shortly after he set foot in the Chinese capital, he moved to dampen expectations saying the issue was complicated. Importantly, he said any change of the scheme that makes it easier for mainlanders to visit the city must take into account mainland compatriots’ feelings and secure their consent.

Leung said it would be difficult to take back rights given to other people. Senior government officials said there are also technical problems involved in capping the number of visits by mainland people holding multiple-entry permit..


The China giveth…

Leung has held out high hopes he could gain some popularity points by seeking Beijing’s support in tackling the problems caused by visitors and traders. Yet he seems to have under-estimated the political and technical complexities and sensitivities of the issue.

The campaign against mainland visitors and parallel traders under the banner of “localist movement” has further complicated the issue and added fuel to fire in cross-border relations.

As soon as he toned down his rhetoric about measures and solutions for the problems, frustrations and anger over a largely domestic issue spread to the hypersensitive mainland-Hong Kong sphere. Opposition against parallel traders, many of whom are, according to customs officials, Hongkongers, has become part of the crusade of the “localist movement” (本土運動).

Fears about the city’s pro-independence activism, or perhaps sentiments, have become heightened since Occupy Central. The campaign against mainland visitors and parallel traders under the banner of “localist movement” has further complicated the issue and added fuel to fire in cross-border relations.

In one of the ugliest anti-parallel traders’ protests in North District on March 8, angry demonstrators kicked at the luggage boxes of passers-by suspected to be mainland visitors. TV news footage of an old man and a mother and a young girl (not traders as it turned out) being harassed by protesters drew condemnation from officials and pro-government politicians. Some activists campaigning for the notion of “Hong Kong first” in issues involving divergent interests distanced themselves from the radicals.

That did not help lessen the political fallout. Mainland websites were flooded with tit-for-tat outbursts by netizens. Among others, there were calls for paying mainland visitors to visit the city to pick quarrels with Hong Kong people. Some claimed to have torn up their entry permits to Hong Kong to show their anger.


It was not always thus

Devastated by the outbreak of SARS in 2003, Hong Kong turned into a “ghost city” as visitors fled. At the request of the Hong Kong government, Beijing lifted restrictions for mainland visitors to travel to the city to help rejuvenate the economy. Residents of selected cities are allowed to visit Hong Kong under an individual visitors’ scheme. Those in Shenzhen can visit the city on multiple-entry permit with no cap on the number of visits.

Once hailed as an all-win travel arrangement, it turned sour as local residents complained of unwelcome consequences including congestion in public transport, shortage of infant formula, rude behaviour of mainland visitors and parallel trading, among others.

Pressure is mounting for the government to lessen the pain by asking the mainland authorities to fix a maximum of visits for people holding multiple-entry permits. Also suggested has been a hiatus to adding new cities to the list of individual visitors’ programme.

17 years on after 1997, there are looming doubts about whether the special privileges and status given to Hong Kong will remain as they were. Subtle changes are on the horizon.

The Leung administration, however, seems to be reluctant. Politically, officials argue Hong Kong might need to follow the principle of reciprocity, under which people in the two places should be subject to the same restrictions applied in one jurisdiction. The question becomes whether the number of visits of Hong Kong people to the mainland should also be capped if the city limits the visits of Shenzhen residents here?

Political embarrassment and sensitivity aside, government officials fear fresh restrictions risk adverse impacts on the retail and tourism sector, both in substance and image. Already faced with uncertainty regarding the strength of the world and Chinese economy in 2015, officials are worried the city cannot afford a drastic drop in the number of mainland visitors.

The set of contradictions over mainland visitors and parallel trading has become more complex in the midst of profound changes in Beijing’s approach, or arguably policy, towards Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework.


Off your pedestal

Before the 1997 sovereignty reversion, it is clear Hong Kong’s interests took precedence over the other parts of the mainland. Water supply from Guangdong to the city was given priority even in times of drought. Shanghai gave way for Hong Kong to be the first home of Disneyland theme park in China. There are more cases of its kind.

17 years on after 1997, there are looming doubts about whether the special privileges and status given to Hong Kong will remain as they were. Subtle changes are on the horizon.

Gone, perhaps, are the days when the central government intervened to protect Hong Kong’s interests when conflict with other localities arose. When commenting on the row over mainland visitors, National People’s Congress Standing Committee delegate Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai said the government should forge talks directly with other provincial authorities. Put bluntly, Hong Kong can no longer count on the helping hand of Beijing.

Compared to his two predecessors, Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Leung has done more talk and more walk on the importance of good relations with other provinces and cities through “inner diplomacy.” Now is the time for him to show why that matters when the mainland visitor policy is urgently in need of a major repair.