Zhang Dejiang’s visit: Cynic in the light

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Zhang Dejiang’s (張德江) “seeing, listening and speaking” tour of Hong Kong was a resounding success, although maybe not in the way some had expected.

Zhang Dejiang’s (張德江) “seeing, listening and speaking” tour of Hong Kong was a resounding success, although maybe not in the way some had expected.

Many have remarked on the relatively conciliatory tone of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee Chairman during his visit. Others have pointed out the rarity of face-to-face meetings between pan-democrats and state leaders. By the accounts of the four pan-democratic attendees of Zhang’s Wednesday night pre-banquet cocktail reception, the powerful politico listened patiently to their views and even expressed an interest in future interactions.

Other observers have focused on the many expressions of support that Zhang offered for Hong Kong. He was reported to have used the words “support Hong Kong” 15 times during his keynote speech at the Belt and Road Summit. He even appeared to echo Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah’s (曾俊華) words of support for localism, setting a clear distinction between local identity and the red-line “no-nos” of “independence and “self-determination”.

Indeed, this appears to be something both sides can build on, so goes a popular interpretation. Sadly, while this author would like to share this cautious optimism, it is difficult to be overly upbeat when looking at the big picture. Indeed, Zhang Dejiang’s tour was a success — for Zhang Dejiang. What made it so was the most obvious aspect of the affair: the publicity factor.

Keeping Up Contrived Appearances

For Chinese officials at Zhang’s level, flirtations with the limelight bring few unplanned moments and are solidly based on a stage of protocol. The props were all in place days before the visit, when Xinhua referred to the affair as an “inspection tour”. This firmly established the power dynamic of the event. That Zhang, like President Xi Jinping (習近平) in December, sat at the head of the table during a working meeting with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) simply reinforced that dynamic.

This puts a slightly different tint on the pan-democrats’ widely reported comments at the cocktail reception. It is important to recall that, as the mainland’s number-three official and the chief coordinator of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, Zhang needs no such meeting to learn of their complaints. By now, all four of the attending legislators have made their opinions quite clear in many contexts. No doubt, Zhang has seen that figurative memo.

Nor would Zhang need a cocktail reception or a banquet to break the ice. Obviously, he has a working relationship with Xi Jinping himself. If policy winds are truly blowing differently in Beijing this season, Zhang can set up a meeting with Hong Kong stakeholders in a formal and more respectful setting at any time he desires without acceding to those stakeholders’ demands.

Instead, Zhang succeeded, with little trouble, at arranging a less formal sort of meeting that he knew very well would be discussed by the media. He played his role admirably.

To their great credit, the pan-democratic legislators did speak what is on the minds of many. But, with such an unfavourable power dynamic established from the start, they were left looking somewhat like petitioners in the throne room. The setting was perfect fodder for mainland audiences, and Zhang himself said nothing compromising. It was smart politics at play.

Zhang’s other semi-public stops in Hong Kong were hardly more insightful. His keynote speech offered marginally more information about the One Belt, One Road strategy than anyone knew before. And, as the trip was winding down, he ventured further afield visiting [empty] flats in a new public housing estate; touring a senior-care centredespite the fact that youth is the more problematic demographic for the government; and, if the video can be believed, meeting with an attentive crowd of “HK people” (i.e. “people from different sectors”) at the Central Government Offices, who, coincidentally, were seated like a choir that, by his positioning, he literally preached to.

Zhang did all of this at whatever it cost Hong Kong to mobilise thousands of police officers per day, search the harbour for bombs, position several police launches offshore, block streets in areas of Wan Chai, halt major infrastructure construction in that district for four days, and close restaurants in the convention centre for one.

Overall, the NPC Chairman walked a fine line, gaining recognition for some pleasing words in a context that emphasised his superior status, revealing little new, and remaining isolated from Hong Kong’s undesirables by a thick security cordon, all a large cost for which he was not billed. What is not to like from his perspective?

Cynic in the Light

As a line from a popular 1960 musical comedy goes, “What at night seems oh so scenic, may be cynic in the light.” In this case, the “light” is a reminder of the big picture, both temporally and spatially.

Temporally, less than four months from now, Hong Kong will elect a new Legislative Council in what has already been tipped to be a hot season. It is no secret that the Hong Kong government as well as the central government would prefer that pro-establishment legislators hold a veto-proof two-thirds majority. If Beijing is to get the Hong Kong political system it wants with minimal fuss, this is a must-have. It suffices to say that Zhang has an incentive to look nice.

As for spatially, Hong Kong is located not far from another territorial thorn in Beijing’s side. While the overwhelming victory of Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan’s presidential election may have been a setback for the Chinese capital’s cross-strait ambitions, many have noted signs that China is still playing hardball.

For instance, early this month, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was made aware that its attendance at the World Health Assembly is contingent upon recognition of the One China Principle. And just two days before Tsai’s inauguration, China launched war games just across the strait. Such events, dutifully reported on through the media, are designed to have an impact on average Taiwanese listeners, whom Beijing hopes, will apply pressure on the government in turn.

So when China’s number three comes to town saying just enough to sound pleasing but with nothing substantial in hand, some cynicism is justified. Actions do speak louder than words. On that account, Zhang’s visit left precious little room for optimism.