A softer, gentler Beijing shows its good grasp of what’s ailing Hong Kong

Gary Cheung says top leaders’ professions of trust in Hong Kong people to deal with their own problems, which erupted into violence in Mong Kok, may surprise those who believe Beijing to be clueless

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 4:47pm

When Hong Kong deputies to the national congresses caught their flights to Beijing early this month, most were prepared to be lectured by state leaders. Some would even have been looking forward to being told off about the “grave situation” in Hong Kong in the wake of the Mong Kok riot and told what to do to “put the house in order”.

They also had reasonable expectations that the 66,000 votes clinched by localist candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei in a LegislativeCouncil by-election would fan leaders’ fear that the call for Hong Kong independence is gaining momentum in the city.

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However, contrary to these expectations, which were shared by many pundits, all Hong Kong heard were conciliatory messages during the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

A day after CPPCC chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) urged Hong Kong delegates to engage with young people in the city, NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang told the city’s CPPCC deputies that the “one country, two systems” principle would remain unchanged, while urging them to safeguard the rule of law.

In marked contrast to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who condemned those involved in the Mong Kok mayhem as “thugs”, Zhang and Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, did not openly use that label.

Without directly referring to the riot, Wang stressed the continuity of the central government’s policies towards Hong Kong, despite “recent events” in the city.

It is no coincidence that Leung has toned down his combative approach

Wang’s deputy, Feng Wei (馮巍), raised more eyebrows by sounding a pragmatic tone in his exclusive interview with the Post earlier this month. I was stunned by Feng’s expectation that several young radicals would win Legislative Council seats in September and his faith in the wisdom of Hongkongers.

So it came as no surprise when Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) said last Wednesday he believed Hong Kong people had the wisdom to handle “all complex problems and situations facing Hong Kong”.

State leaders are, as Feng said, “patient” in handling Hong Kong affairs.

Judging from the pragmatic approach of our top officials, it would seem that their intelligence gathering on Hong Kong since the historic July 1 march in 2003 has paid off. The scale of the protest against proposed national security legislation caught the Hong Kong and central governments off guard and forced the authorities to shelve the plan.

Since then, Beijing has dispatched hundreds – if not thousands – of researchers and officials to talk to people from all walks of life in Hong Kong. They submit regular reports based on their observations and interviews.

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Mainland officials know full well the problems facing governance in Hong Kong and the mounting grievances that might have been the fertile soil for events like the Mong Kok unrest.

It is no coincidence that Leung has toned down his combative approach in the past two weeks. Two days after the by-election, he noted that there were grievances in society. He said last Tuesday that officials would meet lawmakers to discuss giving priority to livelihood-related bills and funding requests in the hope that they would be approved before Legco’s term ends in July. He wouldn’t have done so without the softly-softly approach adopted by the central government.

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When delegates returned in the middle of last week, they were upset by their failure to get any clue about the million-dollar question: will Beijing support Leung to seek another term?

The central government, which has a good grasp of the situation in Hong Kong, is smart enough not to give any hint at such an early stage. Mainland officials know more about what’s going on here than many Hongkongers, including Leung, imagine.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor