Posted: May 30, 2016
The visitor from Beijing has come and gone. Zhang Dejiang 【張德江】, third highest ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy, and chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, was received here with all the care and attention due a person of his rank and importance.
He also heads the central government’s leadership group on all matters concerning Hong Kong and Macau. That means he is, in effect, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s boss and Leung’s job is currently on the line, awaiting Beijing’s approval for his second term due to begin next year. Hence the elaborate reception and the 6,000+ police detail that shielded the guest from danger and embarrassment at all times during his May 17-19 visit (May 23 post).
The aim of Zhang’s visit seemed clear even if it was not spelled out in so many words. He was the first official to set foot here since: the 79-day Occupy street protest in 2014 provoked by Beijing’s directive on universal suffrage elections; the legislature’s 2015 veto of that directive; and the violent political protest in Mong Kok last February.
Zhang’s mission was obviously intended to calm nerves and ease tensions because his tone remained unexpectedly calm and unthreatening throughout … except at the very end when he spoke briefly to an assembled gathering of mostly loyalist local notables. This group of about 200 people included members of Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress delegation and also Hong Kong appointees to the honorary Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Ironically, he spoke more forcefully about the dangers of dissent to this gathering than to other less politically reliable audiences where his tone was always low-key reassuring and reasonable.
Among the few non-loyalist attendees at the final speech of his visit was former Chief Secretary Anson Chan who stood out amid the dark-suited crowd. She was wearing a bright yellow jacket and black skirt … Occupy protest colors.
Zhang said pointedly that if dissent escalated out of control here, all Hong Kongers would pay the price (Wen Wei Po, May 20).
Earlier he had focused on dissent in softer tones when he sought to reassure Hong Kongers. There is growing resentment over the cross-border pressures for economic integration and especially the pressures that impact many sensitive aspects of political life. This resentment was recently dramatized in the futuristic film Ten Years that has received much praise and publicity here but is banned elsewhere in China where the defiant message has nevertheless not gone unnoticed.
Chairman Zhang’s reassurances were given in most detail to banquet guests on May 18, and published in full the next day (Wen Wei Po, May 19). He promised that Beijing would not transform “one-country, two-systems” into “one-country, one-system,” which refers to full political integration. Hong Kong would not be “mainland-ized” 【內地化】. It’s economic and social systems and core values were meant to last and the rule of law is paramount among them.
But Zhang also said Hong Kong’s special status in Beijing’s eyes is due to its economic strengths. These should not be weakened by political arguments. Localist sentiments are fine but they should not override loyalty to the nation.
No sooner had Zhang left town, however, than the local mainstream commentaries returned to “normal” with their usual ill-defined generalities and talking points. All noted Zhang’s new conciliatory tone. But no one had asked him directly, or raised specific questions later, as to what exactly he meant by “two-systems.” And without that definition, the promise that the two systems would never become one is meaningless.
In fact, there are many indicators now of attempts to “mainland-ize” that Zhang promised would never occur. One is Beijing’s electoral reform mandate that Hong Kong’s legislature vetoed because it would have meant setting the precedent for establishing mainland-style party-managed elections here.
Another cause for local concern is the continued insistence by mainland and loyalist sources that Hong Kong must pass the Article 23 national political security legislation that has been languishing on the shelf since 2003. There it was joined by the proposed compulsory political studies curriculum, shelved in 2012, but not abandoned.
Media ownership and university management are other areas of perceived eroding local autonomy that also have provoked dissent and protest. So has the case of the local book dealer who was apparently targeted by mainland law enforcement agents working here in order to put an end to his business of selling books banned across the border but not here.
The question for Zhang, then, is why he failed to acknowledge any of the specific causes responsible for Hong Kong’s growing dissent. Besides paying lip service to the old slogans about “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy,” what plans does Beijing have for reassuring Hong Kongers that their rights and freedoms will not again be threatened as they already have been by the Article 23 legislation and patriotic education and mainland-style party-managed elections?
In the wake of Zhang’s visit, there has been talk of developing a regular channel for communications between Beijing officials and Hong Kong’s democratic politicians. The head of Beijing’s liaison office here says he has invited them to lunch many times but they refuse to accept his invitations. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has just given an interview saying how much he has wanted to consult with them but they do not respond. And now there is talk of a get-together being arranged across the border in Shenzhen.
A top-level Beijing meeting on Hong Kong is also reportedly in the works … no doubt to hear Zhang Dejiang’s work report 【工作匯報】on his Hong Kong trip and discuss its lessons. But through it all there has yet to be any hint of the definitions Beijing officials might use in making their decisions about Hong Kong’s political future beyond the old platitudes and generalities.
Curiously enough, there is one hint, though, in Ming Pao Daily‘s May 20 editorial. No way of knowing if it was just a case of editorial exuberance, or if perhaps the editors learned something others did not during Zhang Dejiang’s visit. But writing about his positive message, they appreciated Zhang’s assurance that the “one-country, two-systems” policy would not be changed.
They then went on to speculate that there would be no need to renegotiate the 50-year time limit for “one-country, two-systems” that is spelled out in Article 5 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. By 2047, enthused the editorial, “one-country” and “two-systems” will have “merged so perfectly” that there will be no need to worry about alternatives.
Whether the editors meant that the mainland would have acquired Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms by 2047, or whether Hong Kong will have accepted their loss in deference to mainland ways, remains for the editors to explain. The first possibility was often expressed as a cause for optimism in the years just before Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty, but such thoughts have rarely been expressed since. *
* Post-date, June 13: Ming Pao editors didn’t learn anything the rest of us didn’t during Zhang’s visit. The reference to one-country, one-system come 2047 was just a rhetorical flourish used to polish off the editorial by a writer conjuring up memories of the old dream about the two systems naturally becoming one due to the changes both would have undergone between 1997 and 2047. … Just the sort of casual reference that has allowed the one-country, two-systems promise to remain un-defined for so long …
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on May 30, 2016.