All eyes on Beijing’s next point man for Hong Kong as diplomacy evolves
China’s approach to the city currently has a legal focus, with top lawmaker Zhang Dejiang helming matters
China’s two-day “Belt and Road Initiative” forum is under way in Beijing, attended by leaders and delegates from dozens of countries, including even the US, which has been sceptical of President Xi Jinping’s grand pet project to drive a new era of trade along the old Silk Road.
Looking at the line-up, it’s easy to forget that 28 years ago, China’s leaders were desperate to roll the red carpet out for their Western counterparts and show the world that the country was open for business and better ties. That was a time when the nation was facing its worst diplomatic isolation after the crackdown on the student-led, pro-democracy movement in 1989.
Not only that, the already tough Sino-British talks on Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to Chinese sovereignty also came to a halt for a period of time for obvious reasons.
Yet, two years later came the surprise visit to Beijing by then British prime minister John Major for the signing of the controversial multibillion-dollar new Hong Kong airport project. I was among the shocked press corps flocking to Beijing for the mega news event of the year, and still clearly recall the day I stood outside the Great Hall of the People to watch Major walk in.
It was at this time that many started to realise Qian Qichen, then China’s foreign minister, was playing such a key role in diplomatic manoeuvring with the West. We came to know Qian better when he later became the first state leader in charge of Hong Kong affairs in his capacity as vice-premier, and we naturally made him a major doorstep target while covering those many rounds of meetings in Beijing for the handover.
In early 2002, together with my former TV colleagues, I went to Zhongnanhai for a face-to-face interview with Qian. That was when he famously said: “Mr Tung is like a loner, or a commander without an army. He needs his team [for efficient governance].”
It was the first time for Qian to hint at Beijing’s strong support for the accountability system of Tung Chee-hwa, who was to start his second term as Hong Kong’s first chief executive. Qian also reiterated the need to enact legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law as Hong Kong’s constitutional obligation to protect national security.
Dubbed the “godfather” of Chinese diplomacy at the time, Qian impressed many with his witty remarks, and gentle but composed and uncompromising manner. It was therefore somewhat surprising, yet also expected, to see so many across the political spectrum in this city speak so highly of him when news of his death broke last week. Even his adversaries from those tough negotiating times.
Upon Qian’s retirement in 2002, the difficult task of supervising Hong Kong was passed on to Zeng Qinghong, then vice-president and a key protege of former president Jiang Zemin. The baton was handed over in 2007 to Xi, also in his capacity as vice-president at the time, and then to Zhang Dejiang, head of China’s top legislature, five years ago.
The evolution of Beijing’s choice of point man for Hong Kong affairs shows how it has shifted its focus on the city from a diplomatic-oriented perspective to a more Hong Kong-mainland relations one; and now towards a more “legal” focus by placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the country’s top lawmaker.
All eyes will be on Beijing again to see who will be the next to succeed Zhang, who is likely to step down after the 19th Party Congress later this year.