"For someone reputed to be a hardline enforcer, his performance was smooth as silk."

Why the third highest ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy should pay Hong Kong a visit at this particular point in time has been the subject of much speculation both hopeful and otherwise. Zhang Dejiang (張德江) is also chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, deputy head of the National Security Commission, and head of the central government’s leading group responsible for Hong Kong and Macau affairs. He, together with President Xi Jinping (習近平), are the top decision-makers on all matters concerning Hong Kong.

Since officials have not yet explained in so many words why Beijing deemed the trip to be necessary, everyone is free to draw their own conclusions from what was said and done during Zhang’s visit. On the face of it, then, the apparent aim was to reaffirm the authority of the central government and remind Hong Kongers of their place in Beijing’s scheme of things. The trip was a formal Beijing response to all that has happened here since 2014.

Visits by such ranking Beijing officials are not that frequent. They come mostly for anniversaries and other major celebrations. On this occasion nothing was spared in Hong Kong’s effort to receive him: red carpet, police band, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, other top Hong Kong government officials and a bouquet of flowers were all out on the tarmac at Hong Kong’s international airport where he arrived around noon on Tuesday, May 17 for a three-day stay.

Security arrangements were just as impressive, the best that 6,000-plus police personnel could provide. Road closures, armored car, VIP Protection Unit, maximum security alert, huge water-filled crowd control barriers cordoning off the hotel/convention complex site, well-stocked supplies of pepper spray, tear gas, riot-control gear, and so on.

The guest of honor

Hong Kong’s preparations reflected the sensitive timing and provocative nature of Zhang’s visit. It was the first by so high-ranking a Beijing official since Hong Kong’s 79-day street occupation protest in 2014. That protest was a reaction to Beijing’s hardline directive on electoral reform and Zhang is not just any Beijing official.

As the top man responsible for Hong Kong affairs, he oversaw Beijing’s uncompromising insistence on the reform directive. The protest has since evolved into an extended period of heightened dissent that now includes, for the first time, calls for Hong Kong independence.

Consequently, workmen spent several days gluing down pavement bricks – in memory of the 2,000 bricks that became improvised weapons of choice during the Lunar New Year political protest last February.

A police contingent was even assigned to camp overnight atop Lion Rock, a promontory that used to mark the divide between urban and rural Hong Kong. The lion’s-head shape of the hilltop had already become a symbol of Hong Kong’s ability to struggle against adversity and the grinding poverty that used to exist “beneath Lion Rock.” More recently daredevil rock climbers have taken to hanging giant protest banners from the lion’s head. The banners, always in yellow and black Occupy protest colors, demand genuine electoral reform. The police guard was supposed to spare Zhang the embarrassment of seeing Hong Kong’s defiant message.

Zhang’s reputation as a hardline enforcer of party policy and discipline actually predates his 2012 appointment as head of Beijing’s central leading group for Hong Kong.

A native of Liaoning province, he was originally most familiar with China’s three Northeastern provinces where he attended college and studied the Korean language. He then went on to earn a degree in economics at Kim Il-sung University in North Korea. His successful career has nevertheless been spent in several different provinces. But he knows well enough the nature of political tensions here and Hong Kongers are familiar with him.

Zhang first came to local notice when, as the party secretary of neighboring Guangdong province, he was the official ultimately responsible in 2003 for keeping the new SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus a top secret, as security regulations then demanded.

The danger was not acknowledged until the fatal disease had spread first to Hong Kong and then worldwide. World health authorities then added insult to injury by naming the new disease not after Guangdong where it originated but after Hong Kong’s formal post-colonial designation as a Chinese SAR (Special Administrative Region).

The epidemic no doubt contributed to Hong Kong’s upsurge of angry defiance over Article 23 in the national security legislation that the local legislature would have passed a few months after the disease peaked here, but for the half-million marchers who turned out to protest on July 1, 2003.

Zhang was still party secretary two years later when all of Hong Kong’s Legislative Councilors made a ground-breaking visit to Guangdong. Pro-democracy legislators confronted him directly over the June 4, 1989 bloodshed in Tiananmen Square and on the nature of Beijing’s “one-party dictatorship.” Zhang had defended both the decision to clear the square by force and party dictatorship.

The visit

Zhang said upon arrival that he aimed to “see, listen, and speak.” It was a prosaic way of introducing what pro-Beijing sources billed as an “inspection tour.” Critics immediately noted the terminology. In years past, officials came only to visit. Across the border officials inspect (視察) the localities and work units for which they are responsible. And Zhang proceeded to do just that, mainland-style.

First item on his itinerary was the Hong Kong government office block where he listened to the work reports (工作匯報) of leading Hong Kong government officials. The photographs were meant to convey the relative status of those present. He sat alone at the head of a rectangular conference table with officials seated in rank order on either side (Wen Wei Po, SingTao, May 18).

Additionally, his visit was timed to coincide with an international conference on Beijing’s new trade and development initiative. This is known by the improbable name of “One Belt, One Road” (一帶一路). The idea was introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013. Its name is intended to evoke memories of the fabled Silk Road. Those were the days when imperial China dominated the ancient trade routes overland across Central Asia to the Middle East and by sea along the China coast heading south and west.

But this new project is far more ambitious reflecting China’s new status as a global economic player intent on making its presence felt. The idea is to promote trade and investment all along the old trade routes that will if successful include over 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Zhang gave the keynote speech at the conference spelling out the economic opportunities for Hong Kong in effusive detail.


Dissenters were determined to have their say regardless. The rock climbers hung their giant yellow and black banner on the rock face of another hill nearby. Not the symbolic Lion Rock but their message was the same: we want genuine universal suffrage elections – see the South China Morning Post, May 18.

There were also a few small street demonstrations. But the designated protest zones were far from the main hotel/conference site and the visitor was too well shielded for the protests to have much impact. Ditto the protest banner that the League of Social Democrats managed to hang high above the airport road to greet Zhang upon his arrival – too high for anyone, even the police apparently, to see. But the banner contained the most subversive of all slogans: “end the Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship” see Apple, May 18.

What mattered most was the plan by pro-democracy legislators to confront Zhang directly, which they were allowed to do. Ultimately, after much discussion, they decided to boycott the big formal banquet on May 18, but use the pre-dinner cocktail reception to have their say.

The guest list was negotiated beforehand and the demand was accepted for a few minutes face-to-face with the guest of honor by four pro-democracy legislators. It was a rare encounter - the first between pan-democrats and so senior a Beijing official since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

The four legislators: Emily Lau (劉慧卿), Democratic Party; Alan Leong (梁家傑), Civic Party; Cyd Ho (何秀蘭), Labour Party; and Joseph Lee (李國麟) who represents the health services Functional Constituency.

They said what they had to say about their hope that Beijing would not approve current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for a second term, due to begin next year. They spoke about the importance of restarting negotiations over universal suffrage electoral reforms as soon as possible.

They also asked about the case of the book dealers, which Beijing has yet to explain. The five men were apparently pressured by mainland law enforcement agents, some working here. The dealers were then detained there for several weeks while being questioned about their publication and sale of political books that are banned on the mainland but not here.

The legislators also complained about their home-return permits since some democracy activists, including Emily Lau, are not permitted to travel to China. No one was rude. There were no fireworks.

Zhang reportedly listened but remained largely non-committal. He said the travel permit problem would be solved. He also volunteered that since CY Leung had been duly elected and appointed to the post, they couldn’t just get rid of him without due cause, which begged the question about a second term.

Zhang also responded favorably to the idea of establishing some sort of regular communications channel between the central authorities and pan-democrats. They think they cannot get their views across through the filter of intermediaries – see Ming Pao, Sing Tao, Standard, May 19.

Softer tone, same message

Zhang said at the outset that he had also come to speak and his two main speeches, both delivered on May 18, said the most about why he was here. For someone reputed to be a hardline enforcer, his performance was smooth as silk. He used all the code words of communist party dictatorship but presented them, for the most part, in a calm unthreatening manner - quite unlike the polemics that have been coming from local pro-Beijing loyalists.

He had listened to the legislators’ complaints and his direct knowledge about the reasons for Hong Kong dissent extend back at least to his Guangdong party secretary days in 2003. So he could not claim ignorance on that score.

Yet he gave no hint of understanding what the new post-Occupy generation of protesters is saying with all their talk about localism, self-determination, genuine autonomy, and independence. He blandly rejected all of it in terms that only an old-school comrade might be expected to use. His speech at the Hong Kong government banquet was the most revealing in this regard.

He praised Chief Executive Leung Chu-ying’s leadership of the Hong Kong government, ignoring all comments to the contrary. Pan-democrats are not alone on that score and those hoping for some signal that Beijing will not approve a second term for Leung received no words of encouragement.

The reasons why Leung ordered such lavish preparations for Zhang’s visit were thus clarified. Zhang is his boss and Leung’s job is on the line.

Zhang said one-country, two-systems is a basic national policy and will not change. Without acknowledging any of the details or definitions involved, he said Hong Kong would not be “mainland-ized” and one-country, two-systems would not become one-country, one-system - despite mounting evidence to the contrary, which he did not acknowledge.

He said it’s natural for people to have different opinions about politics, economics, and social problems. It’s also natural for people to love their own locality. But this must not come at the expense of the nation. In fact, it’s only a very small number of people (極少數人) who are opposing the central government and raising the flag of independence. Actually, what they are talking about is not localism, but separatism.

He also said the rule of law is one of Hong Kong’s core values and everyone should be treated equally before it in the interests of maintaining a stable society – see Apple, Wen Wei Po, May 19; SCMP, May 21. Speculation has it that this was a veiled criticism of the judicial system for not punishing severely enough democracy protesters who get off lightly despite their frequent violation of public order rules and regulations.

It’s not possible to conclude from Zhang’s comments whether Beijing has finally begun to think creatively about Hong Kong. The mild tone suggests maybe; everything else suggests not yet.

His “one-country, two-systems forever” promise is meaningless without some explanation as to what the Hong Kong system is going to look like decades hence. Will existing political rights and freedoms be preserved or not? Hong Kongers want to know what Beijing has in mind, but Zhang did not tell them.

Probably, Beijing’s answer for now can be found in Zhang’s keynote speech at the Belt-Road conference. If so, officials seem to be hoping that something like a post-1989 “Beijing consensus” solution can be found whereby Hong Kong will come to accept the political strictures of one-party dictatorship in return for the rewards that can come from being part of China’s growing global aspirations.

Beijing ended its own 1980s democracy movement in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown by isolating and punishing only the “very smallest minority” of leaders and rewarding that generation of intellectuals with a share in China’s economic growth: careers, incomes, housing, travel, social standing, etc. It has meant a long-term classic trade-off: political rights for economic benefits.

Hong Kong’s business community has given Belt-Road a decidedly cool reception since Xi Jinping introduced his grand plan in 2013. Zhang aimed to change that with an enthusiastic pep-talk about the limitless possibilities and economic opportunities Hong Kong could enjoy if only it would jump aboard the Belt-Road bandwagon.

If only the city would become more actively involved in China’s development, Beijing is promising its full support. He even listed the ways Hong Kong could apply its strengths to the project at hand: professional services, accounting, design, dispute resolution, shipping, logistics, finance, internationalizing China’s currency, cultural exchanges, education, joint Hong Kong-mainland development projects with Belt-Road countries.

Zhang talked a good game. But he overlooked another key consideration that’s fueling “localist” sentiments here, namely, Hong Kong’s forced integration with the mainland economy now already well underway. Until Zhang is willing to discuss the future of Hong Kong’s existing rights and freedoms within a future fully-integrated political-economy, he’s not likely to generate much enthusiasm for all the promises he made here on May 18.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper on her blog.

First Editor: Edward White

Second Editor: Olivia Yang