Carrot or stick? It’s no surprise that Beijing is using both with Hong Kong

All eyes will be on top official Zhang Dejiang to see how he addresses the city’s many problems when he visits in May

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 12:39am

Whether it’s the pundits or the press, they usually like to label what’s hawkish or dovish in politics. But in reality, both approaches can be different means for achieving the same goal. That seems to be how Beijing is dealing with Hong Kong now.

Last week’s announcement that National People’s Congress Standing Committee chairman Zhang Dejiang, who also supervises Hong Kong affairs, will visit the city next month, has sparked widespread speculation as to what message he will bring – whether it will be “soft” or “tough” amid intensifying mainland-Hong Kong tensions, especially with growing calls for self-determination or even independence.

Those who are obsessed by such guessing games may be interested to note one particular episode on the mainland recently: the war of words between a retired senior Chinese diplomat and a top editor at an official tabloid.

It was about whether China should play its soft power or be more assertive in its diplomacy.

Wu Jianmin, a former Chinese ambassador to France and ex-Foreign Ministry spokesman, openly criticised some reports by the Global Times, a radical nationalistic tabloid affiliated with the People’s Daily, as “very extreme”.

He declared that the tabloid’s editor-in-chief, Hu Xijin, “didn’t get it right” by describing the world situation as “messy”. Wu stressed that when dealing with international issues, such as South China Sea tensions, keeping a cool head was vital.

Hu retorted that diplomats always wanted the press to act as a parrot repeating their words, although he admitted that the media tended to adopt a more hawkish stand.

Neither Wu nor Hu lacked support, but netizens also pointed out that what the pair argued about could be two sides of the same coin, although Wu could be perceived as a moderate type while Hu appeared too nationalistic.

So when it comes to Hong Kong matters, it’s not surprising either to similarly have different thoughts and approaches among people in various positions in Beijing. What sometimes complicates the issue is Hongkongers – politicians included – can come up with divergent opinions based on their own understanding of comments by certain Beijing officials, especially when they mix it up with their personal views.

That could explain why there have been two conflicting interpretations of Beijing’s latest attitude towards Hong Kong since March.

It’s therefore understandable that the public will be more receptive towards a ‘soft’ approach from Beijing

One theory is Beijing has turned softer because of two signs: firstly, none of the state leaders ever mentioned the Mong Kok riot during the lianghui or two annual sessions of the NPC and the Chinese

People’s Political Consultative Conference; secondly, in a recent interview with the Post, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Feng Wei said Beijing was prepared to see a few radical young candidates get elected into the Legislative Council in September, and believed that they would become “mature” eventually.

But there are people holding just the opposite view, and they argue that the omission of Mong Kok in the state leaders’ remarks was simply because Hong Kong was not at all the focus of the two sessions. Judging from the many, strongly worded condemnations of pro-independence talk recently, it can’t be clearer that not only has the idea of independence touched a raw nerve in Beijing, but as a matter of fact, the central government has never changed its tough stance towards Hong Kong since the 2014 Occupy movement.

It’s human nature for one to be more open to persuasion than coercion. It’s therefore understandable that the public will be more receptive towards a “soft” approach from Beijing.

Now the whole town is waiting to see how Zhang is going to address the city’s many problems when he visits. But realistically, there is no need to get too caught up in the guessing game, for waving both carrot and stick is a common political tactic.

There is no difference when Beijing deals with Hong Kong, except that in matters of principle such as independence, there is no room for any tolerance.