The Manila hostage crisis, in which eight Hong Kong residents, including three Canadian citizens, were killed, has highlighted the rather ambiguous status of the former British colony under China's policy of "one country, two systems."
According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution enacted by the Chinese Parliament, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy while the central government is responsible for defence and foreign affairs.
However, even where foreign affairs are concerned, Hong Kong is allowed to develop economic, trade, financial and monetary, shipping, communications, tourism, cultural and sports relations with other countries.
It is also a member of the World Trade Organization. In fact, it became a member much earlier than China. It is also a member of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and the Asian Development Bank.
Thus, Hong Kong's chief executive is often treated like a head of state.
However, when 15 Hong Kong residents were held hostage in Manila on Aug. 23 by fired policeman Rolando Mendoza, chief executive Donald Tsang was not able even to get through on the telephone to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. Mr. Tsang had wanted to urge Mr. Aquino to give top priority to the safety of the hostages.
At a Sept. 9 press conference, Mr. Aquino likened the chief executive to a provincial governor and said, "If a Philippine governor suddenly demands to speak with President Obama or Hu Jintao, that would probably not be allowed."
He also disclosed that he had received a letter from Hong Kong that he considered "insulting," and he said he would not respond.
While the contents of the letter have not been disclosed, chief secretary Henry Tang had said at the airport when meeting the survivors of the hostage-taking that the government planned to "convey to the Philippine authorities through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Central People's Government issues that we think should be addressed in the investigation."
Mr. Aquino said that "we were being told, in very minute detail, what we were supposed to do."
However, such detailed instructions, while perhaps insulting, were clearly necessary. The Philippine police did not take steps to secure the evidence. Even the cellphone used by Mr. Mendoza was mistakenly handed over by the police to Hong Kong officials on the assumption that it belonged to one of the hostages.
The Chinese government has been very supportive of Hong Kong.
President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice-President Xi Jinping wrote jointly to the chief executive to express condolences, voicing shock and sorrow.
China has also insisted that the Philippines conduct a "comprehensive, just and thorough investigation" and refused to accept a visit from two high-level representatives, Vice-President Jejomar Binay and Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, until the report was complete.
Moreover, when the Chinese embassy discovered that Mr. Mendoza was to be buried in full uniform with the Philippine flag draped over his coffin, it protested vigorously and the flag was removed.
The Chinese government does not consider it inappropriate for Mr. Tsang to telephone Mr. Aquino. However, a senior Chinese diplomat said privately that it might have been more effective if the chief executive had gone through the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which would then had notified the Philippine government to expect such a call.
However, even if there is no constitutional obstacle to Hong Kong's dealing directly with foreign governments, there are practical problems.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has several hundred diplomatic missions around the world, while Hong Kong has economic and trade offices in only about 10 countries. Thus, Hong Kong has little choice but to work through the ministry, which has the resources to provide aid in case of emergencies. And most Hong Kong residents, after all, are Chinese nationals whom the Chinese government has an obligation to protect.
However, the chief executive must be the one who is seen as the representative of Hong Kong's residents. He can work through the Foreign Ministry, but, ultimately, he is responsible for taking care of the people.
This must be what "one country, two systems" means in practice.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer.