Hong Kong is not a place that regularly finds itself in the midst of diplomatic brawls. With Beijing holding the rein’s of the city’s foreign and defence policies it’s mostly with Hong Kong’s mainland neighbours that tensions erupt. But over the past three years this city has been in an open war of words with one of the most populous countries in Southeast Asia. Following a press conference in Hong Kong yesterday the conflict seems to have finally come to an end. But has anything really changed?
The tensions between Hong Kong and the Philippines began in August 2010 following a hostage crisis on a tour bus in Manila. Eight Hong Kongers were killed by a former Philippine National Police officer who had taken the bus and its passengers hostage and opened fire after negotiations to release the tour group turned sour.
Much of the crisis was broadcast live on television and the handling of the situation by the Manila Police Department was criticised both domestically and internationally. Hong Kong’s government demanded an apology from the Filipino government. President Aquino III – who was in the first few months of his presidency at the time – did not issue a formal apology and relations began to break down.
Between then and now, various rows have taken place. While compensation was granted to victims’ families and action taken against those who handled the crisis, still no apology was given. With Manila just an hour away by air, Hong Kong is the Philippines’ 10th-largest travel market. But following the crisis, Hong Kongers were dissuaded from travelling there by their government, who issued a black-travel alert against the country – a warning that was, in other cases, only reserved for violent and war-torn countries.
Earlier this year Hong Kong also removed visa-free travel permissions for Filipinos, which was not only a blow to the thousands of Filipinos who live here but also to the businesses that benefit from regular Filipino patronage.
Yesterday saw the arrival of Manila’s mayor (and former president of the Philippines) Joseph Estrada alongside two key Aquino aides – national police chief Alan Purisima and cabinet secretary Jose Rene Almendras. The trio pledged further compensation to the victims’ families and outlined the actions being taken against those in the police force who had been deemed responsible. And while no official “sorry” came from the national government, the Philippines instead expressed its “most sorrowful regret”. Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung immediately announced restrictions on travel between the two countries would be lifted and solid bilateral relations resumed.
But while many in Hong Kong may have breathed a sigh of relief that the issue was finally resolved, little has really been achieved. Hong Kong didn’t get the official apology it demanded and the Philippines kowtowed on a national level to what was an isolated, metropolitan issue. For the 160,000 Filipinos who live in Hong Kong, many as domestic workers with little-to-no political rights, yesterday’s press conference may mean nothing at all.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.