23 October 2016
Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou planned to be in Hong Kong no more than seven hours to give a speech. Photo: Office of the President, ROC
Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou planned to be in Hong Kong no more than seven hours to give a speech. Photo: Office of the President, ROC

What Ma’s travails with Tsai tell us about Hong Kong

Former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) thought he could visit Hong Kong, his birthplace, without restrictions now that he is no longer president.

So when the Society of Publishers in Asia invited him to address a gala event this Wednesday, he accepted.

After having applied to the Office of the President for approval to travel, Ma started drafting his speech in English, which was to focus on cross-strait and East Asia relations.

Ma wanted the world to hear Taiwan’s voice at such a high-profile gathering. He was set to be the most senior Taiwan politician to visit Hong Kong since 1949.

And to reassure Tsai Ing-wen, his newly installed successor, about his intentions, Ma said he would be in Hong Kong no more than seven hours altogether.

But on Sunday, it emerged that Tsai’s government had denied his application.

It turns out Ma is subject to immigration control for national security reasons, having been out of office for scarcely one month. The restriction typically lasts three years.

In a 2,897-word statement, a government spokesman said an ad hoc panel comprising the Presidential Office secretary general, the chief of National Security Council and officials from the Mainland Affairs Council and three ministries responsible for foreign affairs, national defense and justice had decided such a trip would be detrimental to Taiwan’s interests.

He said it was the first time that a former Taiwan president had applied to travel overseas within a year of leaving office. He suggested that Ma give his speech via video conference.

Taipei is worried Ma might leak state secrets in a highly sensitive place like Hong Kong. Also, it said his personal safety could not be guaranteed.

Hong Kong has been an important player in cross-strait relations. The 1992 Consensus was agreed between Beijing and Taipei in Hong Kong, paving the way for the “One China” policy which each party has since chosen to interpret its own way.

But Hong Kong lost its independent third-party status after the handover. Bilateral exchanges have since moved to Singapore, the last being a landmark meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in November.

This is not the first time Ma has been forced to cancel an overseas trip.

In 2005, when he was Taipei mayor, Ma faced some unexplained visa delays for an academic seminar in Hong Kong. The Tung Chee-hwa administration categorically denied Beijing had anything to do with these.

Recent years have seen improved ties between Hong Kong and Taiwan, punctuated by high-level visits.

Financial Secretary John Tsang is the most senior Hong Kong official to visit the island. Eric Chu Li-lun (朱立倫) paid a courtesy call to Hong Kong in 2015 in his capacity as Kuomintang chairman.

Tsai’s rebuff of Ma is an early test for Hong Kong’s future relations with the new government in Taipei.

As important is the question of whether Tsai regards Hong Kong as just another Chinese city.

Meanwhile, some of Tsai’s allies in the legislature are concerned Ma’s elder daughter Lesley (馬唯中) is a national security issue because she lives here with her husband.

(The youngest son of former vice president Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) also is a Hong Kong resident.)

Tsai might have her reasons for not wanting her predecessor to set foot in Hong Kong at this sensitive juncture of “one country, two systems”. 

Ironically, paramount party leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had meant it to be a political solution for the Taiwan question, except that Hong Kong had become a more urgent matter with the 1997 expiration of Britain’s lease on Kowloon and the New Territories.

Did Tsai just send another clear message that Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” is a farce and that her government won’t fall for it? 

Who knows?

But Ma is not going away quietly. His office pointedly argued that Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who was president for 12 years, was allowed to travel to Britain for several days at the invitation of the International Joseph Alois Schumpeter Society in June 2000, a little more than a month after he left office.

Even the jailed Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was allowed to leave his cell (for medical treatment) and attend a banquet this month.

Democratic Progressive Party lawmakers, on the other hand, praised Tsai’s decision.

“An overseas trip by a former president absolutely carries the risk of confidential information being leaked, especially as Ma has picked as sensitive a place as Hong Kong,” said a DPP legislator.

He said filing the application at such short notice is against the law.

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Ma Ying-jeou’s elder daughter Lesley, who lives in Hong Kong with her husband, is seen as a national security issue by Taiwanese legislators. She works as a curator in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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