What Zhang’s visit tells us about Hong Kong politics

May 25, 2016 13:20
Zhang Dejiang (right) signs the guest book at Government House while Leung Chun-ying and his wife, Regina, look on. The Leungs hosted a family banquet for Zhang on the first day of his visit. Photo: HK govt

The recent visit by Zhang Dejiang (張德江), China’s top legislator and key decision maker on Hong Kong affairs, may help a little to increase harmony in a deeply divided city.

The conventional wisdom is that Beijing has chosen to subtly back down from its intractable attitude toward the special administrative region’s opposition camp.

One sign is Zhang's unprecedented meeting with four pan-democratic lawmakers.

In the thick of the 2014 Occupy movement, some senior cadres in Zhongnanhai may have thought they picked the right person as Hong Kong's chief executive when Leung Chun-ying not only gave full display to his allegiance to Beijing but also quelled the protests without the Chinese troops stationed in the city having to be deployed.

But amid the simmering disaffection among the people, the Leung administration’s callous disregard of the pan-democratic bloc and society at large have put his Beijing masters under a very unflattering light.

My observation is that Leung may have been prodded to change his hardline manner of governance, which has brought more opposition, filibustering and even separatism -- which is the last thing Beijing wants.

It is notable that Zhang, the third-ranking leader in the Communist Party, didn’t meet a single figure from the local business community.

The stock market's benchmark Hang Seng Index declined significantly throughout Zhang’s stay in Hong Kong.

Clearly investors, big and small, weren’t excited at the top leader's visit, nor did local tycoons see any reason to prop up the stock market as a gesture of welcome.

I wrote in my previous column that Beijing’s well-trodden tactic is to befriend the middle-of-the-roaders and marginalize those who remain most defiant and that aside from key members of the pro-Beijing camp, Zhang would summon other political figures who also oppose Hong Kong independence.

Apparently Zhang’s informal meeting with four pan-democratic lawmakers -- Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing, the Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit, the Labour Party’s Cyd Ho Sau-lan and health services legislator Joseph Lee Kok-long -- was a well-orchestrated one.

Beijing must have been pleased by the immediate denunciation of the brief exchange by younger democrats.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a key member of the Demosistō party, said he was agonized when the four lawmakers petitioned Zhang to sack Leung, as this was tantamount to acknowledging Beijing’s authority over the city.

Younger and more aggressive activists may eventually abandon the loose pan-democratic coalition if Beijing offers more chances of direct dialogue to the city’s mainstream democrats.

Beijing’s efforts to win over people’s hearts may have to continue, since Hong Kong remains useful to its key initiatives, like the Belt and Road strategy.

Still, the goodwill for further dialogue will soon peter out if Beijing doesn’t signal any change in its policies.

It’s rumored that President Xi Jinping (習近平), general secretary of the Communist Party, will convene a plenary meeting on Hong Kong next month.

Though the pro-Beijing camp has ruled out any likelihood that Beijing will alter the framework it has prescribed for universal suffrage, my hope is that Xi and Zhang can give the go-ahead to relaunch electoral reform and allow some flexibility or room for maneuver so that the pan-democrats can have an excuse to retreat gracefully.

And, if there is a policy adjustment, will Leung be made a scapegoat for misleading the central authorities?

Not likely.

The central government knows only how to dictate a Hobson's choice to Hongkongers, who must accept candidates handpicked by Beijing.

Hong Kong police pulled out all the stops to protect Zhang, with measures comparable to anti-terrorist operations.

In this regard, the public has targeted its criticism at the wrong people, as police merely did as they were told.

The party prescribes detailed security protocols when its senior officials travel at home or abroad.

It’s naïve to still buy the notion that Hong Kong police have any authority when a state leader is in town.

Remember how the Queen and other senior British diplomats complained about the rudeness of Chinese security officials when Xi visited Britain last year?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 24.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A pedestrian walks past water barricades in Wan Chai the day before the visit by Zhang Dejiang. Hong Kong was on the highest security alert, mobilizing about a fifth of the police force. Photo: Bloomberg

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal