Zhang Dejiang gives political warriors plenty to chew on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 9:14am

Traditional Chinese wisdom holds that, for a battle to be won, "food and fodder should go ahead of troops". But how do we translate this to the political battlefield?

State leaders delivered a clear message last week to Hong Kong: if universal suffrage is to be secured, it must be implemented in accordance with the Basic Law. And nurturing public support is vital for Beijing.

While the omission of references to "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong" and a "high degree of autonomy" from Premier Li Keqiang's maiden work report was widely noted, Hongkongers must also be alert to his unusual choice of adjectives when he called on the city "to implement the Basic Law in a comprehensive and accurate manner". The use of these seldom-heard words makes clear Beijing's growing concern that some in the city are doing otherwise, and that debate arising from pan-democrats' insistence that the public and political parties get to nominate chief executive hopefuls is getting the consultation on reform nowhere.

Meanwhile, Beijing's man in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Dejiang , set out reform principles when he met Hong Kong delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The NPC chairman stressed universal suffrage must be adopted in accordance with the Basic Law, and that the chief executive must love the city and country.

In a free society like Hong Kong, what Beijing believes are "basic principles" could cause different interpretations, and trigger seemingly endless debates. Beijing sees those who hold opposite views as giving more weight to the principle of "two systems" than "one country". But to pan-democrats, this is a case of Beijing interfering and "screening" candidates, which it finds unacceptable.

Yet it seems the government of President Xi Jinping is taking a more proactive approach, making its views loud and clear. As such, Zhang urged local NPC and CPPCC members to "dare to actively speak up".

Beijing does not want to see its voice ignored, and as Zhang points out, it is vital "to fight for the hearts of the public". He encouraged the delegates, all trusted loyalists, "to rebut views contravening the Basic Law, and to condemn all kinds of unlawful activities that undermine the rule of law and stability of Hong Kong", a comment widely seen as an attempt to galvanise public opinion against the Occupy Central civil disobedience plan.

Zhang's call could mean a higher profile for local NPC and CPPCC members. Under "one country, two systems", they are not supposed to comment on domestic issues, except for state affairs and matters related to cross-border relations.

In the past, Beijing had discouraged the members from cultivating a high profile and thus overruled the idea that an office be set up for them amid concerns they could undermine the authority of the city's legislature and government. Besides attending the annual March meeting and joining a few organised inspection tours to other provinces, they were never previously encouraged to comment on local issues.

Of course, Beijing could argue that Zhang was not urging them to comment upon local issues but specifically upon universal suffrage, on which the central government has the final say, and upon Occupy Central, which in Beijing's eyes is a matter of state security that affects the whole country.

So when CPPCC Standing Committee member Peter Lee Ka-kit made his eyebrow-raising suggestion that eight chambers of commerce fund a body to conduct opinion polls to balance the "usually unfavourable results" in University of Hong Kong polls, it was seen as unusual. As vice-chairman of Henderson Land Development and son of its chairman, Lee Shau-kee, Peter Lee became a rare member of the "silent" business sector to "speak up".

Lee may simply have been setting out his own views. But Beijing is trying to get more supportive voices heard. It sees the row over reform as a fight to define "universal suffrage".

That may make for a noisier city … and busier journalists.