The death toll from the typhoon in the Philippines is the same as it was yesterday – namely, no-one has a clue. Given the aerial shots of afflicted regions, even a well-governed developed country would have trouble knowing where to start. Foreign aid is starting to come in, led by the US Marines, Japanese medics, US$9m each from Australia and the UK, US$200,000 from Taiwan and even US$100,000 from storm-damaged Vietnam, and help from Citibank (link includes details for donors).
The South China Morning Post tries to put a gloss on China’s contribution, which at US$100,000, looks like a calculated and churlish snub towards Southeast Asia’s most reluctant kowtower to the Middle Kingdom. There is something a bit disturbing about the Chinese leadership’s ability, and indeed apparent eagerness, to pass up an opportunity to display magnanimity and good grace. Those of us with long-enough memories might recall the time in 1986 when Hong Kong’s then-governor Edward Youde died on a duty visit to Beijing. A photo subsequently appeared in the press of an unkempt, cigarette-puffing workman shoving a rough wood coffin to be loaded onto a plane; if the idea was to repel the Hong Kong public, it worked. As with its miserly donation to the Philippines today, it undermined China’s overall interests, and showed a bizarre lack of awareness, or care, about national image. Maybe Chinese officials get some sort of quick, pleasurable thrill from it and just can’t stop themselves.
In a sadly similar vein, Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung announces that the disaster befalling the Philippines won’t change his government’s one-month deadline for the imposition of ‘sanctions’, unless Manila gives satisfaction over the 2010 bus hijacking. Even Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung, normally a hand-wringing humanitarian preaching justice for the poor, is so wrapped up in the wretched bus thing that he seems oblivious to what he is saying. It is as if these people have lost any sense of decency or even practicality. Or simple awareness of how it must look to any outsider; fortunately, the world’s press seems to have more pressing stories than ‘HK takes callousness and insularity to new heights’.
To make sense of it, we need an explanation. Obviously, a lot of Hong Kong politicians have invested a lot of effort into ramping up the bus tragedy in recent weeks. To CY, it has offered a chance to distract attention from HKTV’s licence-refusal and his other woes; in his desperation, he might even have hoped it would win him a few extra shreds of approval rating. For the pro-democrats, it has been a profile-raiser and something else to criticize the administration for. For the patriotic pro-Beijing camp, it has been an opportunity to pander to populist and racist instincts (as it has for everyone), and a welcome occasion on which the Hong Kong public might align itself with Mainland-style nationalism.
As it has been, no doubt, for CY – presumably second-guessing or just taking guidance from Beijing’s local Liaison Office. The recent resurgence of the bus tragedy has suited Chinese foreign and Hong Kong policy nicely. It has been an additional means of bullying Manila for its uppity attitude over maritime boundaries and closeness to the US. It has also served as a great opportunity to get Hongkongers to identify themselves as victimized by foreigners. Generations of Mainlanders have been taught all (if not more) about their ancestors’ persecution and exploitation at the hands of foreigners, and how the Communists rescued the people from this humiliation. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the narrative has been of oppression at the hands of the Communists, and escape to refuge in the colony of a relatively benign foreign power. Filipinos’ victimhood at the hands of natural disaster is an intrusion into this struggle of communal mythologies.