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Hong Kong falls from China's grace
Paul Lin

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A lonely passenger
Since SARS began to spread in China and the authorities in Beijing acknowledged the epidemic, 94 countries around the world have adopted differing degrees of restrictions on Chinese persons visiting their countries.

Some refuse entry entirely. Among these countries, the Asian and African countries that constitute China's "old friends" have put the tightest restrictions in place. For example, Sudan has completely refused entry to all visitors from China. By contrast, the Western countries often viewed as "opposing forces" have been more generous.

By last year, the UN had 191 member nations. Thus those acting in an "unfriendly" manner toward China amount to nearly half of the UN member states, and these are precisely the countries that usually have relatively frequent interaction with China.

The people of Hong Kong are naturally among those Chinese who have faced restrictions. Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR) of China, and thus even its name brings SARS to mind. Besides, Hong Kong's infection and death rates are among the highest in the world.

Even more unfortunately, apart from Hong Kong being designated an epidemic region and having all sorts of restrictions imposed on it by foreign countries, people from Hong Kong have also been prevented from entering many cities and provinces within China. According to available data, 16 cities and provinces around the country have refused entry to people from Hong Kong and even expelled those who were already there, making people from Hong Kong in effect no different from India's "untouchables." Among the country's 30 provinces, over half are unfriendly to visitors from Hong Kong. The great extended family of all Chinese is colder toward its own members than is the wider global community. So much for blood being thicker than water.

According to Hong Kong media reports, those areas that have adopted measures to quarantine visitors from Hong Kong include Shanghai and the provinces of Hainan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Liaoning.

When Taiwan announced on April 28 that travellers arriving from Hong Kong would be quarantined for 10 days upon arrival, officials of the SAR government and some opinion makers were a bit annoyed. But who would have imagined that certain cities and provinces in China would act with no prior warning, adopting measures to quarantine visitors from Hong Kong immediately for a period of 14 days? Moreover, the hotel bills for those 14 days are to be paid by the quarantined travellers themselves. Some districts in Shanghai acted in just this manner.

Reports say that in some neighborhoods of Shanghai, little old ladies have formed posses and begun snooping about to discover which households might have visitors from Hong Kong. It's almost like the rooting out of "illicit foreign relations" in previous times. Public Security officers also entered people's homes in Hainan. If they saw anyone from Hong Kong, that person was immediately deported. Otherwise one faced 14 days in quarantine.

Suddenly finding themselves outcasts, these people were driven back to Hong Kong, but the SAR government dared not complain. Of course, the Shang-hai city government denied having such a policy, but it issued two related documents. On this basis, each district government set its own "local policy."

To be sure, these policies are not aimed solely at people from Hong Kong but also apply to residents of other SARS-affected provinces. It's just that people from other areas have no media that will speak out on their behalf, and they are used to being oppressed. People from Hong Kong have long been "favored by heaven." Naturally it's difficult for them to adjust to having become "personae non gratae."

On top of this, Guangdong Province, where the SARS epidemic originated, made repeated bad- faith attempts earlier to locate the origin of SARS in Hong Kong. Only after people returned to Hong Kong and complained to the media did they receive any attention.

On April 29, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attended the China-ASEAN special conference on SARS in Bangkok, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa only dared say he wanted to "understand the situation" and didn't dare object to the way people from Hong Kong have been treated.

But journalists from Hong Kong were less squeamish about raising this problem. Wen said, "For the sake of protecting the health of our compatriots in Hong Kong, it's OK to take some reventative measures, but if each locality is creating policy on its own, I will make them correct their ways. I'll take care of it when I get back."

In Shanghai, where news travels quickly, the government immediately changed its policy, but on May 2 in Yunnan -- a province not originally among the 16 cities and provinces rejecting visitors from Hong Kong -- a tour group from Hong Kong arrived via Guangdong in the city of Jinghong only to be met with a public security demand that they be quarantined for 14 days. Refusal meant returning home immediately at their own expense.

Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin recently met with India's Minister of Defense George Fernandes and expressed the need to "draw together" in the battle against SARS. It would appear, however, that the people of each city and province have drawn together by building earthen walls around themselves and restricting each other's movements for the sake of self-protection.

Measures to quarantine areas affected by an epidemic may sometimes be understandable, but notices to reassure the public should certainly be posted first. Such actions shouldn't be taken on a whim and implemented with no warning whatsoever. Local influence has been on the rise in China, and the new leadership including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are already at a disadvantage. Moreover, since Jiang's coterie have taken an ambiguous stance in the fight against SARS, the local powers may grow even more fearless.

Comparing the way these cities and provinces have treated Hong Kong to the way Hong Kong has treated them, it would appear their "autonomy" is actually greater than Hong Kong's. It seems "one country, two systems" will soon exist in name only. This will have a subtle effect on the future development of China's political scene.

As for the people of Hong Kong, now that they have felt the heartlessness of the "motherland," do they still view it so warmly? At least Hong Kong's various "sib-ling" cities and provinces clearly have no regard for blood ties now.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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