Pan-democrats must seize this chance for dialogue with Beijing

Four of them have been invited to meet state leader Zhang Dejiang; now, it’s up to them to build bridges with the central government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 9:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2016, 9:57pm

A keynote speech to a summit on Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” trade strategy may be the centrepiece of state leader Zhang Dejiang’s (張德江) trip to Hong Kong this week. But, amid all the protocol and security surrounding a visit by the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, it may be remembered for the political significance of a less formal event. That is a cocktail reception ahead of a banquet at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

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What sets it apart is the inclusion of four pan-democrats in invitations to 10 legislators to join representatives from different sectors of society in meeting Zhang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, who also oversees Hong Kong affairs. This is not just the first opportunity for pan-democrats to express their views directly to a Beijing official since the two sides met in Shenzhen on the government’s ill-fated political reform package in May last year. It will be the first time a state leader responsible for actually formulating policy on Hong Kong, as opposed to officials who administer policy and report to top leaders, has met with the pan-democrats.

It is a significant breakthrough that could only have been made on Beijing’s initiative. It is a positive signal that Beijing thinks meaningful communication with moderate pan-democrats remains possible, despite yet another setback to reform through defeat of Beijing-backed proposals, and the unprecedented civil disobedience of the Occupy Central protest.

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The invitations went out to Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing, Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit, the Labour Party’s Cyd Ho Sau-lan and health services sector lawmaker Joseph Lee Kok-long.

The cocktail reception is expected to last only 40 minutes or so. The pan-democrats will be outnumbered by mainland and Hong Kong officials as well as by pro-government lawmakers. The significance of their invitation may therefore seem largely symbolic. Nonetheless, it remains an exceptional opportunity for direct communication that bypasses the usual channels of the central government’s liaison office and the Hong Kong government. The unexpected guests can be expected to take advantage by raising some divisive issues with Zhang. It is too soon to expect concrete results, but not to hope that it goes well enough to prompt more direct contact during future visits by top state leaders. Dialogue offers the best chance of narrowing differences.