Zhang Dejiang, a ranking politburo member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), visited Hong Kong in May 2016. Zhang holds the appointment of Beijing’s top person in charge of Hong Kong issues. Zhang is also the leading man in the National People’s Congress, one of the two “lianghui” in China, which are important avenues for articulating the people’s voices to the CCP and the Chinese government.
Zhang is perceived to be a capable intermediary for Beijing. He worked with Hong Kong authorities in dealing with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic when he was the Party head of Guangdong province. He was also effective in his past appointments as interlocutors for politically sensitive regions that are important for Chinese diplomacy. For example, having studied in North Korea, Zhang was an important bridge between Beijing and Pyongyang, arranging high level visits for top Chinese leaders.
The main purpose of Zhang’s Hong Kong trip was to inform the Hong Kong business world and the public about the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative launched by President Xi Jinping to enhance connectivity in the overland and maritime routes. The highlight of his trip, at least for the media, turned out to be gatherings with selected pro-democracy politicians from the island who espouse a more moderate position. Besides the pro-democracy moderates, other politicians were also selected to meet Zhang, bringing the total number up to ten individuals.
This was in line with his objective of being the eyes and ears for Beijing, perhaps to pick up details for planning President Xi’s own trip to Hong Kong in 2017. Next year marks the second decade since the handover of Hong Kong to China and it is an important anniversary year. As the eyes and ears of Beijing, Zhang’s target audience was clear — business sector, legislators, judiciary, pro-democracy moderates, bureaucracy, the scientific community, and others.
Those who met up with Zhang described the encounter as a cordial one in which they were able to put their points across to the politburo member. It was a goodwill gesture in the context of post-Occupy Hong Kong. The meeting itself was unprecedented and became newsworthy. Both parties appeared to agree on preventing the pro-democracy movement from becoming radicalized. A sign that both parties were wary of radicals operating in the territory was the way in which the area where Zhang was residing was locked down for Zhang’s visit, with a large police presence and bricks stuck down on the pavement.
For the Hong Kong people and its business sector, it was a rare opportunity to learn more about OBOR’s benefits for Hong Kong from a top leader’s narrative. Even for non-participants in OBOR, Zhang’s talk was informative, given the importance of OBOR to Beijing. The OBOR is the most important initiative in President Xi’s administration and looks like to be his one and only major foreign policy umbrella initiative and legacy.
The international and local media were especially attentive to Zhang’s arrival in Hong Kong as he was the first senior central government leader to come to the island territory since the massive Occupy Central pro-democracy protests. Zhang had outwardly said he was offering a dovish outreach to all political groups in the Special Administrative Region. Chief Executive CY Leung welcomed Zhang to Hong Kong with a banquet and his administration also gave Zhang a tour of high-tech incubators in Hong Kong. Zhang expressed full public support for CY Leung’s administration. Hong Kong officials expressed their hope of the island becoming a super connector between the mainland and the world.
Some media analysts speculated that this trip paved the way for more pro-Beijing candidates to win in the September Legislative Council election.
Zhang held conversations with a group of participants slightly larger than 40 individuals, including senior civil servants, Executive Council and Legislative Council members, members of the judiciary and local district politicians. He was also given a tour of the Science Park in Shatin New Territories near the Chinese University of Hong Kong by Secretary for Innovation and Technology Nicholas Yang. Here, Zhang was able to converse with startups, business people, inventors, entrepreneurs in the high-tech business.
Zhang was on a charm offensive, reaching out to the traditionally Beijing-friendly business sector while trying to conjure up the image of a benign and caring central government. Some media analysts speculated that this trip paved the way for more pro-Beijing candidates to win in the September Legislative Council election. For the pro-establishment crowd, it was a morale booster.
While dovish and olive branch sentiments featured prominently in Zhang’s visit, other events also emerged that headed towards the other end of the political spectrum. Since Occupy Central, Hong Kong has become a factionalized society divided into moderates, pro-Beijingers, pro-Hong Kongers, pro-independence activists, radicals, anarchists, pro-democracy activists, leftwingers, localists, “minzhulun” advocates, greater autonomy advocates, etc. Out of these factions, the moderates (including the silent majority) have always been able to quietly shape the mainstream narrative, with a preference for gradual and peaceful change, pragmatic ideas of suffrage, economic stability, and displays of patience for methods of political advocacy through persuasion.
The press conference held by book retailer Lam Wing-kee appears to drive another wedge into this factionalized society. Lam was one of five booksellers who went missing last year. He said that politically sensitive information and increased book sales could have caused concern to Chinese authorities who, according to him, abducted him for questioning. It is currently too early to tell what would be the immediate momentum effect on the pro-democracy movement. Coming on the heels of Zhang’s charm offensive, this incident is likely to have some impact on the highly-factionalized Hong Kong society. The most liberal-minded pro-democrats and radical factions (two usually but not always mutually exclusive groups) would likely seize upon this press conference for energizing their own advocacies (with their own respective political nuances), while the moderate pro-democracy factions are likely to contextualize the Lam press conference within their recent civil meeting with Zhang and what some of them perceive as a potential new conduit for putting their political views across.
The moderates in Hong Kong society are likely to observe and evaluate how the strongest (and perhaps most radical) elements of both pro-establishment and pro-democracy forces react to the press conference revelations before shaping their mainstream political narrative, contextualizing their views within the rubric of the realities of recognizing a strongman administration in the central government, the impending visit by President Xi, and the slight rapprochement achieved during the recent Zhang visit. The moderates are currently in an information-seeking stage, waiting to have more revelations from all members of the detained publishers/book retailers group before making their judgements about their own subjective ideas about the future of Hong Kong even as the pro-democracy crowds start to agitate about Lam’s revelations.