27 October 2016
Zhang Dejiang (left) never took a step in public without being surrounded by a horde of tough-looking guards and a bevy of sycophantically smiling officials. Photo: Reuters
Zhang Dejiang (left) never took a step in public without being surrounded by a horde of tough-looking guards and a bevy of sycophantically smiling officials. Photo: Reuters

Who says old-style Maoism is dead and buried? Not in Hong Kong

In recent days, Hong Kong has been experiencing the flavour of an old-style Maoist reception for national leaders.

Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, has now concluded his whirlwind visit, which gave every impression of reviving the Mao-era security paranoia in the careful screening of what he could see, and there was even a recreation of the same kind of atmospherics that accompany state leaders when they tour around the mainland.

It may be an exaggeration to say that this visit was a complete replica of how these grand tours are conducted across the border, but there were few differences.

Small girls were on hand to thrust flower bouquets into Zhang’s hands. He never took a step in public without being surrounded by a horde of tough-looking guards and a bevy of sycophantically smiling officials.

And when he spoke, those around him assumed solemn expressions, careful to be seen assiduously noting every priceless word.

Mao Zedong set the tone for how national leaders were to interact with the people they ruled.

This was on gruesome display when he made inspection tours around the country during China’s Great Famine: officials made sure that, despite the collapse of Chinese agriculture, his train passed only fields full of crops.

During other periods of Mao’s reign, equally strenuous efforts were made to ensure that the “Great Helmsman” never saw anything he did not want to see.

And, of course, no one was allowed near Mao if there was the smallest fear that they would say or do anything to upset him.

This week in Hong Kong, Zhang slipped with ease into the role of a resolute and somber leader.

He had nothing new to say but spoke in the characteristically cryptic fashion of senior officials who, on one hand, live in fear of publicly cutting across anything said or thought by President Xi Jinping and, on the other, know full well that real discussion and decision making is never conducted in public, so the people are told as little as possible.

It may be argued that the few minutes he spent talking to anti-government legislators somehow represented a new openness, but this very nominal gesture was as meaningful as the tiny amount of time it involved.

The people really affected by this visit are the inner circle of the city’s establishment who have shamelessly abandoned a commitment to the notion of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong”.

Instead they have become mere ciphers awaiting their latest orders.

They need to be told what to say, because they are more confident being echo chambers rather than representatives of the people of Hong Kong.

And they need instructions on who to vote for in the upcoming “election” for chief executive.

Equally important, they need to know who is up and who is down in the eyes of Beijing, so they can adjust their behavior toward them accordingly.

Readers may have noticed that I have failed to mention Zhang’s important message relating to belts and roads, the ostensible main purpose of this visit.

All I can say in my defense is that I am every bit as excited and inspired by this as everyone else who is not on the government payroll.

Moreover anyone with the smallest knowledge of Chinese Communist Party history will recall that this “One Belt, One Road” campaign comes at the end of a long line of other campaigns, most of which have proved to be disastrous.

The Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958-60, for example, was supposed to transform and reboot China’s economy — instead it plunged the nation into recession.

Then there was the Hundred Flowers campaign that preceded it.

Ostensibly this was designed to give the people a chance to speak their minds, but in practice it allowed Mao’s goons to identify dissidents and eliminate them.

However nothing beats the long line of anti-corruption campaigns beginning with the Three Antis Campaign of 1951-52, relaunched in 1953, tried again in 1982 and again in 1989 and yet again today.

A reasonable person might ask whether there was anything resembling success here.

And so we come back to the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, in reality a regional power play.

Before it is quietly put to one side, we will be subjected to a lot more rhetoric on this subject.

Zhang allegedly came to Hong Kong to promote this initiative, but what was his real mission?

Was it to gather better information on the real situation here?

That’s highly unlikely, because Beijing has a great many people on the ground doing precisely this job.

Was it then to engage in serious dialogue with all shades of opinion? OK, I’m just kidding.

Or was it purely and simply another exercise in asserting the supremacy of Beijing, making it clear that the “one country, two systems” concept is now severely curtailed and only tolerated when the bosses up north want to tolerate it.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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