MY TAKE
My Take
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Forget the iron fist, Zhang Dejiang delivered his message with a velvet glove

The first state leader to visit the city in four years, he managed to deliver a finely calibrated performance from which everyone from the opposition to the establishment could take away what they wanted

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 11:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 May, 2016, 1:51pm

Zhang Dejiang could have come at us with an iron fist. Instead he delivered his message with a velvet glove. The party apparatchik turned out to be a better politician than most of the city’s political leaders and lawmakers.

The first state leader to visit the city in four years, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee boss managed to deliver a finely calibrated performance from which everyone from the opposition to the establishment could take away what they wanted.

Zhang offered the pan-democrats their first face-to-face with a top national leader. The four came away sounding conciliatory and promised to keep an open mind about Beijing’s commitment to future talks.

Iron fist or velvet glove? Zhang Dejiang strides on stage in an increasingly divided Hong Kong

The foursome had said they would tell Zhang to get rid of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Instead, Zhang pre-empted them by pronouncing that Beijing is “satisfied” with Leung. The ambiguity was well-intended. Those who hate Leung can say a satisfactory performance for such a top post amounts to a failed grade. But Leung and lieutenants can claim his ultimate bosses are happy with him.

The truth is that Beijing wants to keep its options open as to picking candidates for as long as possible with the chief executive election next year. Zhang even defended Leung’s records on social policy and anti-poverty measures, which was fair enough.

Zhang offers olive branch, but stands solidly versus notion of Hong Kong independence

In a surprise departure, Zhang drew a sharp distinction between “localists” and those who advocate Hong Kong’s independence. The flipside of the so-called communist united front is to lump all your critics and enemies together. But the communist leadership probably realises our independence advocates represent no more than a fringe movement and have no popular support. So it’s best to distinguish – and drive a wedge – between the two movements. After all, there is nothing wrong with localism if it means Hong Kong’s interests should come before the mainland’s.

And so Zhang was wise to confine his take on Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative to an economic forum. The rest of the time, he addressed separately and dealt forthrightly with Hong Kong’s thorny political and social problems. Leung mentioned “belt and road” 48 times in two hours in his last policy address, making it look like Beijing’s policies trump local concerns. Zhang the mainland leader did not make the same elementary mistake.