WELLINGTON: A strange development took place this week regarding cross-strait relations.
On Tuesday (May 18), the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region announced that its representative office in Taiwan, the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan (HKETCO), will suspend operations effective immediately.
The HKETCO had a good 10-year run. Established in December 2011, the HKETCO is responsible for the economic, trade and cultural relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Hong Kong has over 20 such offices across China and in other parts of the world, including Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
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HONG KONG’S OFFICE IN TAIWAN HAS BEEN WINDING DOWN FOR YEARS
Yet the news that Hong Kong has suspended operations of its Taiwan office is but a formality.
The HKETCO has been winding down operations since 2018. After the departure of its second director Zheng Weiyuan in July 2018, Hong Kong has not appointed a successor.
Its operations have been supervised by Deputy Director Zhu Hao who doubled as acting director.
The original setup of the HKETCO included 12 staff - four from Hong Kong and eight from Taiwan.
But the Hong Kong office has seen a dwindling number since the beginning of 2021, ostensibly because it was hard to replace Hong Kong staff after they returned home.
Due to concerns over COVID-19, the Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau had explained earlier, Hong Kong could not send Hong Kong staff to replace those completing their service in Taiwan in early 2021.
Yet when asked on Tuesday, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said the suspension of the operations of the Hong Kong office in Taiwan this time had nothing to do with COVID-19. Tellingly, when asked if the decision was due to politics, Hong Kong authorities declined to comment.
The Hong Kong government said it would continue to operate virtually in Taiwan, through hotlines and online services provided through its GovHK website.
What is left unsaid is that the Hong Kong government is not intending to replenish its Hong Kong staff to resume operations on the ground in Taiwan in the near future.
TAIWAN’S OFFICE IN HONG KONG HAS ALSO BEEN WINDING DOWN
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was sorry to hear about Hong Kong’s unilateral decision and understandably so. Taiwan’s office in Hong Kong, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, has also been winding down but reluctantly.
Originally established as an entity known as the Chung Hwa Travel Service during British rule of Hong Kong, Taiwan’s office in Hong Kong was renamed the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in 2011 by then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Committee appointed Lu Chang-shui in June 2018 to replace departing director Yan Zhong-guang, but Lu could not go to Hong Kong because of the Hong Kong government’s refusal to grant him a visa.
Lu had reportedly resisted signing a declaration committing to “rigorously (upholding) the One-China principle”, a new condition imposed by Hong Kong officials for Taiwanese officials requesting for a work visa.
Lu was not the last Taiwanese staff member to have faced this. Kao Ming-tsun, acting director of the Hong Kong office and some junior staff members similarly encountered visa troubles. They were forced to return to Taiwan in July 2020 after their visas expired and they could not secure a renewal.
Out of five sectional leaders of Taiwan’s Hong Kong Office, only one, the head of the economic section, Ni Bo-chia, remains in Hong Kong. Section chief positions for the liaison, cultural, information and service departments remain unfilled.
Given this state of affairs, it is only a matter of time that Taiwan’s Hong Kong office will have to cease operations by the end of 2021 when the three-year visas of all of the remaining eight Taiwanese staff will expire.
Assuming none of them sign a declaration to uphold the One-China principle as required by the Hong Kong government, they would all have to return, leaving no one to man the office.
Taiwan’s Hong Kong office would then see the same fate as Hong Kong’s office in Taiwan: Where staff operate virtually, less because of COVID-19 and mostly owing to political differences.
HUGE IMPLICATIONS FOR HONG KONG AND THE WORLD
The implications of these recent moves go beyond the impact on relations between Hong Kong and Taiwan and augurs poorly for Hong Kong’s future.
Moving the Taiwanese office out of Hong Kong effectively eliminates Taiwan’s physical, diplomatic toehold on the city.
Worse, if the Hong Kong government extends its practice and requires all Taiwanese visitors to sign a declaration of the One-China principle, it would effectively cut the city's people-to-people flows with Taiwan.
Where Taiwan is Hong Kong’s third largest trading partner, the effects are chilling, not to mention counter-productive for Hong Kong. Fewer Taiwanese traders would negotiate trade deals in Hong Kong.
Where Hong Kong has served as a bridge between China and Taiwan for decades, trade between both sides through Hong Kong, which amounted to HK$411 billion (US$53 billion) in 2019, almost equal to the value of bilateral trade between Hong Kong and Taiwan of the same year, could slow.
And if the Hong Kong government extends its practice of requiring all foreigners seeking work permits to sign a statement upholding the one-China principle, the city could effectively cut ties with the entire world and isolate itself in the process.
Professor Bo Zhiyue is founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services to government leaders and CEOs of multinational corporations.