National / Politics

Japanese officials silent on drama unfolding in Hong Kong

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

In the past few days, high-ranking government officials were willing to discuss the importance of keeping Hong Kong stable, prosperous and free. The city is particularly important to the future of Japan and the Asia-Pacific region, they said.

But when pressed by reporters, they have been tight-lipped about whether they support the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and residents’ calls for universal suffrage. This has raised suspicions they are afraid of upsetting Beijing.

The four high-ranking government officials contacted by The Japan Times, two who spoke publicly and two who spoke separately on condition of anonymity, responded exactly the same way: by ducking the question.

This signals that not responding is the government’s official policy on the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Unlike the United States, Japan rarely criticizes China on human rights issues to avoid accusations by Beijing that Tokyo is interfering in its domestic affairs.

“The future of Hong Kong is extremely important to the future of Japan. The prosperity and stability of Hong Kong will play an important role for not only China, but also for the whole of Asia,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday at a news conference.

But when asked whether Japan supports the street protests, as the U.S. White House officially did on Monday, he didn’t answer.

When pressed to clarify the government’s apparent policy of ignoring Chinese human rights issues, Suga finally said: “At any rate, we believe it’d be the best solution if the problem in Hong Kong is solved democratically in Hong Kong.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to arrange a meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November in Beijing. This is widely believed to be another reason for Tokyo’s restraint, though Suga denies it.

“We should not say any more (than what’s been officially said). That would be better,” one of the two anonymous officials said Friday.

“It shouldn’t be made clear” whether Japan supports the protest, the official said.

The two anonymous bureaucrats said Japan needs to keep an eye on the protest movement.

“How will China settle this issue? Nobody wants to settle it in a violent way,” one of them said.

“We are speaking in a very careful manner. This is a domestic issue of China,” the official said.

All four officials stressed Hong Kong’s economic importance to Japan. For many companies, the special administrative region has served as the gateway to the Chinese market, where both manufacturing companies and entertainment businesses can flourish by selling Japanese goods and culture.

Since 2007, Hong Kong has been the world’s top destination for Japanese food exports. Hong Kong imported ¥111 billion of those products in 2011, accounting for about one-fourth of Japan’s food exports.