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Ferry crash response revives distrust between Hong Kong and mainland China

A ferry crash in Hong Kong has turned into a political match between the city and Mainland China.

HONG KONG – Amid mourning for the 38 dead, Hong Kong’s worst disaster in decades has once again touched off simmering suspicions about mainland China’s perceived encroachment on the city.

One day after a commuter ferry crashed into a pleasure craft filled with families and workers on their way to watch fireworks over Victoria Harbor, state media reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Vice President Xi Jinping expressed their condolences and urged the Hong Kong government to “spare no efforts” in the rescue. 

The report also said that mainland officials had dispatched four salvage ships from Guangdong province to assist in the effort. 

Yet despite the apparently laudable intentions, local Hong Kong commentators were not pleased. Many pointed out that the Chinese vessels were unnecessary, as Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung later acknowledged that the salvage ships returned home without being used. They were particularly vexed by a report from state-run news agency claiming that these “professional boats from China successfully rescued 95 people.”

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Willy Lo, a writer for Hong Kong Economic Times, blasted the claim as “serious dishonest reporting” on his microblog, while the executive director of Hong Kong Satellite TV slammed the agency for lacking “basic professionalism.”

A headline on China Central Television was also criticized for extravagantly praising Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Xi Jinping for “issue[ing] important instructions, ordering the Hong Kong government to spare no effort in searching for missing persons, [and] treating the injured and comforting their relatives.”

A prominent English-language blogger in Hong Kong decried this “unprecedented involvement by Beijing” in the tragedy.

“Maybe it was because the death toll was so large, or because it was National Day. But it was almost as if a contingency plan were in place … for multiple displays of Mainland activity and concern the next time Hong Kong underwent a tragedy. Such an attempt to curry favour and gratitude and to underline the Beijing leadership’s deep interest would seem this [sic] contrived, inappropriate and even a bit creepy, wouldn’t it?”

These suspicions were made worse by the unusual public appearance of Beijing’s official liaison in Hong Kong. Li Gang, who holds no formal government position, appeared alongside Chief Executive CY Leung as they visited victims in the hospital. In several minutes of remarks, Li gave the first public confirmation that the accident had resulted in deaths.

All these gestures combined to arouse widespread suspicion, as radio shows were filled with discussions of Beijing’s unusually high level of involvement. 

The response to the tragedy highlights the high level of tension and distrust between ordinary Hong Kongers and mainland China—particularly as it comes during so-called “Golden Week,” when millions of mainland tourists descend on the city for vacation.  

Locals’ attitudes toward China have soured amid controversies over “patriotic education” and the central government’s perceived meddling in the chief-executive’s election last spring. Many residents also resent the flood of mainland tourists who flock to the city for luxury goods and expensive real estate..  

This year, there have been several large-scale protests against Beijing’s influence. Polls show that the lowest number of Hong Kongers since the handover in 1997 now consider themselves citizens of China. (Ninety-five percent of Hong Kong is ethnically Chinese; the city has a separate legal and political system from China.) 

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These suspicions are exacerbated by fear that Beijing’s promise to allow the first fully democratic elections Hong Kong in 2017 won’t be carried out. 

Apart form mainland tensions, the ferry tragedy has deeply shaken the confidence of a city that prides itself in having trustworthy, well-functioning public services. 

As Kevin Voigt, an editor who lives on Lamma Island and commutes on the ferry that was involved in the crash, writes “the questions we have are the same as many, asking how it happened and grumblings about whether the ferry companies are doing enough to protect our safety. … 

“But for us, the memory of the 38 souls who lost their lives will be forever etched on that patch of sea — a reminder of the daily trust we place in the hands of those who carry us across the water, and the horrible consequences when that trust is misplaced.”