The direct approach
In his whirlwind visit last week, Wang Guangya gave Hongkongers a fresh impression of a Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
Tasting an egg tart in a Tin Shui Wai wet market, joking on the chief executive election, and answering a question in English at a press conference, the new director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) presented himself as a markedly different kind of mainland leader.
But there was more to Wang's high-profile visit than a fresh personal style. It was a sign of the Beijing body's increasingly active approach to the special administrative region (SAR), some local politicians with central government contacts said.
'The explicit message to the Hong Kong people is that the central government concerns itself with Hong Kong's development. The implicit message is that the HKMAO will in the future take up a more important role in the central government's communications with Hong Kong,' local National People's Congress deputy Wong Kwok-kin said. 'In the past, the office rarely appeared as an independent organ. It worked like a secretariat to state leaders handling Hong Kong affairs.'
In the 14 years since the city returned to Chinese sovereignty, the HKMAO has been largely invisible to the Hong Kong public. According to its official website, the office has eight functions. They include making recommendations on policies relating to the two SARs; handling legal issues about the Basic Law; co-ordinating economic and cultural co-operation between the mainland and the two former colonies; and helping with the management of mainland enterprises in Hong Kong and Macau.
But the office is just part of the state's and Communist Party's large and complex system to deal with the SARs. The party's policy group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs is headed by Vice-President Xi Jinping, with former HKMAO director Liao Hui as the deputy leader. Beijing is also represented in Hong Kong by the central government's liaison office, led by director Peng Qinghua. Various 'middlemen' or self-proclaimed middlemen keep contact with figures in Hong Kong's political, business and other arenas.
Wang's high-profile visit showed the office was stepping up its involvement in Hong Kong-related matters, Wong said. The Beijing loyalist, approving of the shift, predicted it would improve communications between Hong Kong and the mainland.
'Although [President] Hu Jintao and [Premier] Wen Jiabao would spell out messages to Hongkongers via the chief executive when he paid his annual duty visits to Beijing, it is not as direct,' Wong said.
'Wang has at least made a gesture expressing the central government is willing to get in touch with Hong Kong people. He has shown the central government's concern over surging property prices and high inflation here, sharing residents' concern.'
The diplomat-turned-HKMAO-director did specify problems he thought the SAR government should address, even warning that the city's housing needs could grow into political problems if unmet. Local officials swiftly responded by saying they were determined to increase housing supply, including possibly reviving the Home Ownership Scheme in the next policy address.
But is this much mainland involvement with SAR affairs a good thing?
'I think Hongkongers have mixed feelings about this,' the Democratic Party's Cheung Man-kwong said. 'Citizens have long cried for the revival of the Home Ownership Scheme but the government refused to listen. Now the HKMAO director seems to have shown more empathy with Hong Kong citizens than the SAR government has.'
Cheung said it was 'reasonable for citizens to worry' that the central government was interfering in how Hong Kong was governed.
'But realistically,' he added, 'the central government's comment will give the chief executive pressure to solve housing problems.'
Cheung agreed that Wang's tour reflected a change in how Beijing communicated with Hongkongers. 'In the past, people would have to play the guessing game whenever state leaders made some open remarks on Hong Kong,' he said. 'For example, when Wen Jiabao first said Hong Kong had 'deep-rooted conflicts', people did not know what he was referring to. The chief executive and citizens had different interpretations of the phrase ... now Wang has directly expounded on the central government's positions on Hong Kong issues to the people here.'
Cheung was one of the key negotiators in last year's groundbreaking talks between the Democratic Party and the central government's liaison office, which resulted in a deal on the city's electoral reforms for 2012. He said Beijing might have to take a more open approach when dealing with the next constitutional reforms for the 2016 and 2020 Legislative Council polls and the 2017 chief executive election.
'Next time we [Democrats] may not have to hold closed-door meetings with them,' Cheung said. 'They will perhaps talk to people across the political [and social] spectrum.'
Wang's first official visit to the city as the HKMAO chief lasted for less than three days but included a lunch with more than 100 elite guests, including prospective chief executive candidates, property tycoons, lawmakers and prominent academics. He also met the SAR's top officials and top-ranking civil servants and had talks with representatives from selected youth groups.
Yet he avoided protesters who waited for him outside his hotel and at points on his itinerary, trying to hand him petition letters calling for the release of detained mainland activists, vindication for those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and democracy in Hong Kong and in China as a whole.
David Chu Yu-lin, a former local NPC deputy and a critic of the central government's approach to Hong Kong and Macau, said it was a good sign that Wang had visited and met residents but it was wrong for him to shun protests.
'Being defensive sends a wrong signal,' Chu said. 'Demonstration and submitting petition letters is a Hong Kong way of expressing opinions. Since he came here to feel the public pulse, he should be open to the Hong Kong way of listening to opinions.'
On Beijing's future role in the SAR's issues, Chu made a prediction: 'The more mess there is in Hong Kong's governance, the more the central government will take part in Hong Kong affairs.'