Hard and soft: Zhang Dejiang lays down line on independence and localism

Government sources and commentators were expecting the parliamentary chairman to steer clear of the controversial issue, but he surprised everyone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 3:56pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 3:56pm

Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong ended his whirlwind visit to the city in mid-May, leaving behind much food for thought on the city’s future, especially his frank warning on Hong Kong independence, which took many by surprise.

The point here is why was there such a high-profile signal on an issue that he was not even expected to touch on. This was the first time we’ve had a state leader directly voicing out Beijing’s tough stance on independence calls in the city.

When news first broke that Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress, would come to town for a summit on Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” trade strategy, it set off a flurry of guessing on what messages he would bring. Interestingly, from government sources to local political commentators, China watchers and even some Beijing academics, all shared one assumption: Zhang would not openly address the issue of independence.

Their reasoning was that a handful of independence advocates did not represent mainstream views and thus would not be worth a mention by someone of Zhang’s rank, or it might end up giving too much unwarranted publicity to this very small group.

Some cited top Beijing officials’ silence on the Lunar New Year riot in Mong Kok when they met in March for the “two sessions” – the annual meetings of the NPC and China’s top political advisory body – to support their conclusion that Zhang would simply ignore this subject.

To everyone’s surprise, Zhang proved them all wrong. He brought it up in his keynote speech at his welcoming banquet attended by hundreds of leaders and representatives of different sectors.

“I would like to talk about a few issues concerning the original intent of ‘one country, two systems’ ... one is localism,” Zhang began, prompting guests in the grand hall of the Convention and Exhibition Centre to prick up their ears, along with people outside watching the live broadcast of the event on television.

“Just like I’m from the northeastern part of China, I love my hometown and my motherland,” he continued, suggesting that localism in itself was a natural sentiment. But he went on to make it clear that those advocating independence were not promoting localism, “but separatism under the camouflage of localism, which is contrary to the original idea of ‘one country, two systems’ ... The public can judge whether that is a blessing or a curse for Hong Kong”.

Unexpected or not, Zhang’s message and Beijing’s bottom line couldn’t be clearer. But at the same time, what impressed many was his soft and positive take on localism, which was widely appreciated.

It would be interesting to grill those “experts” here and up north on why they got it wrong. But the fact that Zhang did talk about independence was telling enough.

Back in March in Beijing, it was a time and place to discuss and decide the country’s major development policies of the year and years to come. The top leadership naturally wouldn’t allow the Mong Kok riot to steal the limelight while delegates from across the country were supposed to focus on important state affairs.

On the other hand, coming to Hong Kong to “inspect” the city’s latest situation and avoiding this debate would lead to conflicting or confusing interpretations by different people with different agendas.

Some may even mistake it for a sign from Beijing that advocating independence is a non-issue since it does not have popular support – a consequence Beijing apparently does not want to see.

Over the past months, there has been no shortage of criticism that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s strong attacks on advocates have triggered more independence talk. Leung has dismissed such logic, stressing that no ambiguity should be allowed on this matter of principle.

It’s always a political art to skilfully use both carrot and stick. Now that Zhang has drawn a clear red line, his noticeably soft approach also reflects Beijing’s tactics in trying to strike a fine balance between forging social harmony and nipping separatism in the bud.

Hopefully, recent talk about Beijing resorting to“guns and cannons” to tackle independence is but another case of “lost in translation” among certain local people.