China Power

Responding to Manila

The Hong Kong and Chinese govts have acted unhelpfully since the Manila hostage tragedy.

Hong Kongese were officially mourning the eight tourists killed Monday night in Manila after their bus was hijacked by dismissed policeman Rolando Mendoza, who was himself eventually killed by a SWAT team after a 12-hour stand-off.

China has demanded a probe over the way the incident was handled, with many on the mainland and in China furious that the hijacker was able to kill eight people before he was taken out by a sniper.

The anger is in many ways understandable. Authorities in the Philippines have acknowledged that there were ‘inadequacies’ in the way the crisis was handled, with Philippine Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo quoted by AP as saying: ‘Had we been better prepared, better equipped, better trained, maybe the response would have been quicker despite the difficulty.’

Police reportedly initially tried to defend their actions, saying that officers risked their lives without the proper equipment to try and bring the stand-off to an end (although this of course begs the question of why a major metro force was unable to secure the necessary equipment after 12 hours).

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But it’s precisely because blame appears to lay so clearly on the Philippine side that one would have hoped Hong Kong and China officials would have responded carefully to the tragedy.

Unfortunately, they didn’t. The government in Hong Kong issued a ‘black travel alert’ warning that residents should ‘avoid all travel to the country.’ Beijing also issued a travel warning to its citizens.

Why exactly? There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the hijacking was anything but random. The dismissed officer in question apparently hijacked the bus because he wanted to be reinstated—clearly he wasn’t in his right mind. If the attack had been motivated by the ‘Chineseness’ of the hostages, then an advisory would have been understandable. But it wasn’t, and has risked a dangerous backlash against the about 100,000 Filipinos living and working in Hong Kong. Protests have taken place, and there are already reports of Filipino workers having been dismissed in retaliation.

Contrast all this with the much more sensible approach taken by Taiwan, which decided against raising a travel alert, while the Travel Quality Assurance Association reportedly said the hostage situation is an isolated case and that tour groups to the Philippines will depart as scheduled.

I asked Filipino blogger Julius Rocas for his take on the situation and whether he felt there had been an over-reaction by Hong Kong. His response showed an understanding and empathy that many could do well to learn from.

He told me: ‘The hostage taker never issued messages directed at the Chinese community, its government, or anything else remotely related. All that the hostage taker wanted was to get attention for his personal cause.’

But he added: ‘The way China and Hong Kong have reacted is proportional to what they’ve seen, since the whole incident was broadcast LIVE by local media. Seeing as how every move by the police seemed totally unexpected for a supposedly "elite" unit, most reactions from China and Hong Kong are understandable.’