Zhang Xiaoming: Hero or villain?

September 25, 2017 16:27
Zhang Xiaoming was rewarded for being the faithful servant of Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong. Photo: CNSA

During Zhang Xiaoming’s five-year term as director of the Central Government Liaison Office (CGLO), many people believed – or hoped – that Beijing would punish him for what he did here, and some even thought he would be arrested for corruption.

But he left Hong Kong last week to become director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council in Beijing. It is a promotion and a sign of approval by the central government of his work in the territory.

He takes to Beijing the ill will of the democratic side. “Zhang has been fueling conflicts in Hong Kong with his criticism,” said Democratic Party vice-chairman Lo Kin-hei. “How can we expect him to play a part in improving Hong Kong’s ties with Beijing?”

A native of Taizhou in Jiangsu province, Zhang obtained a degree in law from People’s University in 1986. He was assigned to the HKMAO as a secretary to then director Liao Hui. He became an expert in the Basic Law. He arrived here as director of the CGLO in December 2012.

In the summer of the following year, he went to the Legislative Council for lunch with legislators from all sides, the first such high-level meeting. But the honeymoon did not last long. In 2014, the debate over universal suffrage and civic nomination for Hong Kong's chief executive intensified; the Occupy Central movement ran from September to December that year.

In response, the State Council issued a white paper saying that it had "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the territory. "The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.” It ruled out universal suffrage and civic nomination.

Zhang became the Hong Kong spokesman for this position. In September 2015, he said the chief executive had a special legal position which overrode administrative, legislative and judicial organs and that separation of powers was not suitable for Hong Kong.

He was articulating the ideas of Beijing to Hong Kong people, not the other way round. He closely identified with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and shared his increasing unpopularity with a large portion of the population.

In December 2016, Leung surprised everyone by announcing he would not seek a second term, citing family reasons. Most interpreted this as a sign of Beijing’s anger at his management of the city, especially the deep split between the pan-democratic camp and the pro-establishment bloc. So many expected Zhang to pay a similar price and be assigned a less important job in the mainland.

For weeks, the normally pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Pao ran an intense campaign against Leung and Zhang, saying that Zhang would be arrested for corruption. The background and reasons for this campaign remain unclear.

It did not happen, however. Zhang was instead promoted to one of the two top jobs in Beijing overseeing Hong Kong and Macau.

The message is that, during his tenure here, Zhang was rewarded for being the faithful servant of Beijing’s policy. In Beijing’s view, the wide split of society is the fault of the democratic camp and its misunderstanding of the Basic Law not the fault of the government.

Zhang is a career technocrat, not a politician with the high status of others who held the post of HKMAO director before him – Liao Chengzhi, son of Liao Zhongkai, a leader of the Kuomintang revolution and one of the three most powerful members of its Executive Committee after the death of Sun Yat-sen in March 1925; Ji Pengfei, a vice premier of the State Council; and Liao Hui, the son of Liao Chengzhi and vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Zhang’s replacement is also a career technocrat – Wang Zhimin, the head of the CGLO in Macau. A native of Fujian, he is the first head of the Hong Kong office to speak fluent Cantonese, which he learnt in the 1990s when he worked in the youth department of Xinhua in Hong Kong. He is a specialist in youth work.

Wang’s predecessor in Macau was Li Gang. In September, mainland media reported that Li had been removed from his position as a member of the National People's Congress and was under investigation for violation of party discipline.

This change of status reflects Hong Kong’s declining importance in the corridors of power in Beijing. Before and immediately after the handover, it was a major diplomatic portfolio, involving China’s relations with Britain and the Western world. Beijing had to convince a skeptical world that it would honor its promise of "one country, two systems". So it needed senior figures to manage the transition.

But now 20 years have passed. China’s economic and diplomatic power has greatly increased; foreign countries cannot and dare not challenge its rule in Hong Kong.

So Zhang Xiaoming is neither hero nor villain. Rather, he is the loyal civil servant carrying out the order of his political masters, someone who carries out policy rather than devising it.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.