Two appointments, one policy paper and a clock strikes nine

Xi Jinping's softer side has been on show but several political moves sound the note of change in Beijing's pampering approach to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 2:22am

He hugged babies. He was public about his love for his wife. He spoke without party jargon. Vice-President Xi Jinping has displayed a liberal image.

Yet, any expectations of him being soft on Hong Kong will be proven very wrong.

While his predecessors were seen to "pamper" Hong Kong, the new leadership is going for a more formal, if not rigid, approach that will allow little leverage for Hong Kong.

As the saying goes "once the clock strikes nine, mother is no longer going to woo you into bed with stories and songs. The lights are out and the door is shut. You should sleep or face the whip."

The tightening grip is reflected in Beijing's latest appointments to two key Hong Kong-related posts and a recently released policy paper.

The first is the appointment of Zhang Xiaoming - a Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) veteran - to head the central government's liaison office in the city. Bickering between the two offices - each with its own backers in Beijing and Hong Kong - is no secret in Hong Kong's corridors of power. "Beijing said no. Which Beijing are you talking about?" as the saying goes.

Their differences occasionally gave Hong Kong leverage. Zhang aims to cut down on the wrangling and resulting policy slippage.

To Xi, Zhang is also a more reliable enforcer of his policy. Zhang has no job exposure other than the HKMAO and owes his allegiance to Xi. His predecessor, Peng Qinghua, has much broader experience and is widely seen as a subordinate of former leader Jiang Zemin.

An iron fist has also been chosen to oversee Hong Kong matters at the central level. Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang is expected to replace Xi as head of the party's leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, comprising heads of 18 ministries and departments. As Guangdong party secretary between 2003 and 2008, Zhang Dejiang initiated various forms of economic co-operation with Hong Kong despite strong local resentment to sharing its wealth with the competing city.

But he is no political reformer. He made no secret of his anger when the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily defied a media ban to report the deadly virus Sars in March 2003. Less than a year later, several editors of the paper were jailed for pocketing "bonuses".

Zhang Dejiang was also linked to violent crackdowns on several public protests. Among them was the fatal police shooting of poorly compensated Shanwei villagers whose land was confiscated to make way for two power plants.

These officials will apply much more rigid control over Hong Kong, a path clearly laid out by Zhang Xiaoming in his interpretation of the 18th party report. Xi is widely believed to be the mastermind of the 6,000-character article.

It said the "one country" principle should come before that of "two systems". "High autonomy is no full autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau do not inherit their autonomy. Its roots are in the authorisation of the central government."

The article is adamant on the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong and the power of the National People's Congress over the city's court. It also demands an institutionalised reporting system of Hong Kong to the central government.

These positions are nothing new. But, they were previously saved for closed-door meetings between the central and Hong Kong officials out of concern for local sentiment. Their official publication points to an end to the old "pampering" approach to the city.

The change is no surprise. Unlike his predecessor, Xi has little emotional attachment to the "return" of Hong Kong from colonial hands. He sees little chance of regaining Taiwan with the "one country, two systems" principle and thus recognises the falling value of Hong Kong as a showcase.

He does recognise Hong Kong's economic contribution to the country, albeit as its significance declines dramatically.

At the same time, he sees increasing evidence of a plot in Hong Kong to unsettle the country amid the American "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region. "[Foreign interests] have been deeply involved in Hong Kong's local elections, doing all kinds of co-ordination for different opposition camps," Zhang's article said.

To him, Hong Kong is no longer the expensive crystal vase that one should not touch without gloves. This new perspective is shared by many in China's new generation of administrators.

Now, the mother is getting tough and the child is growing up. How many quiet days can we expect in this house?