When veteran diplomat Jiang Enzhu became director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong in 1997, he described the city an "abstruse book" from which he would strive to learn. Throughout his five-year stint, Beijing's envoy, by and large, kept a low profile under the principle of "one country, two systems". Ten years on, the office has seen its third leadership change. Zhang Xiaoming , who served the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) for 26 years, is its new director. If Jiang's role as an armchair observer is generally interpreted as Beijing's commitment to non-interference, appointing someone who knows the Hong Kong story inside out inevitably arouses concerns.
Those who embrace close integration and co-operation with the mainland see Zhang as an ideal choice. As secretary to former HKMAO director Liao Hui before becoming the second-in-charge, Zhang was pivotal in shaping state policies on Hong Kong. Given his good knowledge of the city's affairs and connections, hopes are high that he can better engage different sectors and improve liaison work. His background in constitutional law is also seen as helpful as the city prepares to thrash out the details of how to elect by universal suffrage the chief executive, in 2017, and the legislature, by 2020.
But some see Zhang's transfer as a worrying sign. Described as mild but decisive by people close to him, the 49-year-old cadre raised eyebrows recently when he warned of external forces interfering with local elections. He also called for the enactment of a national security law "in due course", and said there was a need for Beijing to better exercise powers under the Basic Law, such as scrutinising laws passed in Hong Kong. The timing of the appointment is also sensitive in that it comes when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's authority is facing unprecedented challenge. It is hardly surprising if Beijing sees the need to take a closer interest in the city's development.
It remains to be seen whether the new chief intends to be an armchair observer like the first director or play an active role in shaping the Hong Kong story. Zhang has made a welcome pledge that he will implement Beijing's policies prudently and support the government in line with the mini-constitution. This should include adhering to the "one country, two systems" formula and respecting the city's autonomy guaranteed by the Basic Law.