Hope on the menu when Beijing's man goes to lunch at Legco
Alice Wu says the lunch between lawmakers and Beijing's top man in Hong Kong offers a realopportunity for political change
The most important political lunch since the handover is going to happen tomorrow, when a groundbreaking gathering of lawmakers from across the political spectrum will sit down, for the first time, with the director of the central government's liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming. My guess is that nothing cataclysmic will happen. It's just a lunch, or a "social occasion", as Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing put it.
But it is symbolically significant. Whether one sees it as a threat of more mainland interference in the city's affairs or a long overdue step to get any sort of meaningful conversation going, the lunch is lighting up our political landscape.
The fact that the lunch will be served on local lawmakers' turf is significant. As hosts, lawmakers, especially the more experienced ones, will get the chance to show they can be a classy bunch. The last time an attempt was made for legislators to communicate directly with top mainland officials was in 2005, in Guangdong. The matchmaker was then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and the lawmakers were guests. Legco opening its dining hall to host Zhang is, in itself, a milestone.
Zhang, for his part, can show whether he can be a gracious guest. His self-proclaimed readiness for the occasion will undoubtedly be put to the test with some of the "treats" his hosts have in store. And if he emerges as an open, easy-going, gracious and thoughtful guest, it will offer the public an alternative view from the tight-handedness and rigid caricatures of mainland officials, particularly in debate about constitutional reform. If Zhang succeeds, he will not only be breaking the ice with politicians, but with ordinary folk.
At a time of especially strained relations, the timing of this lunch is momentous. Zhang can put to use all the years of experience he has in dealing with Hong Kong affairs. Getting the ball rolling for new electoral arrangements need not be a job only for the government.
The lunch must serve as a first step in starting a conversation that extends to Beijing a place at our table. Offering that "place" - stipulated by our Basic Law and the political reality that Beijing must give its stamp of approval - is perhaps our best defence against threats and fears of meddling. The old forms of communication - a communiqué via isolation, or speaking through intermediate channels, whether the media or "agents" - makes little sense when it can be done across dining tables. It serves everyone's interests to make sure this lunch is more than a "PR programme", as one legislator called it.
Insisting on an "us versus them" attitude will only continue to breed mistrust. That is a recipe for political disaster.
Some may say it is naive to believe that one lunch can accomplish much, but it's important to see that it can be the beginning of the change Hong Kong politics desperately needs. Bringing different parties together to talk serves a much greater purpose than fuelling war between them. The potential for change that this lunch brings to the table is perhaps most significant of all.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA