New face of Chinese parliament Zhang Yesui was host at Hong Kong’s handover

Vice-foreign minister makes his debut as NPC spokesman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 8:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 11:18pm

The man who was master of ceremonies at Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997 stepped into the media spotlight again on Sunday, this time as parliamentary spokesman.

Zhang Yesui – who is vice-foreign minister and was Chinese ambassador in the United States from 2010 to 2013 – made his debut at the Great Hall of the People at a briefing ahead of the National People’s Congress.

More than 5,000 lawmakers and advisers are gathering in the capital for the largely ceremonial annual parliamentary session which opens on Monday.

Asked about proposed revisions to the constitution, particularly the Communist Party’s plan to remove the presidential term limit, trade tensions with the United States and the Korean peninsula situation, the 64-year-old kept to the official script.

He avoided directly answering a question about whether Xi Jinping would be president for life, and he chose not to give away any specifics on defence spending – something that is usually revealed by the NPC spokesperson before the budget is delivered.

Zhang has taken over from Fu Ying, who was also a vice-foreign minister and ambassador to Britain and is now chairwoman of the NPC’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

The appointment of Zhang, who was also Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, follows a tradition of giving senior diplomats the job of NPC spokesperson since the role was first created in 1983.

The son of a farmer, Zhang was raised in central Hubei province and began his diplomatic career after graduating from Beijing Foreign Studies University.

He spent years in London, doing a course at the London School of Economics and Political Science and working at the Chinese embassy for six years before he returned to Beijing, where he joined the foreign ministry’s international department, an agency in charge of multilateral relations.

But the turning point in his career came in 1997, when as director of the ministry’s protocol department he was chosen as the official host of the handover ceremony in Hong Kong – an event that would be beamed around the world.

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The ceremony marking the return of sovereignty from Britain to China after 156 years of colonial rule was the biggest diplomatic event of the year and highly sensitive given the attendance of top Chinese leaders including then president Jiang Zemin and premier Li Peng.

In his memoirs, Zhu Yucheng, former director of the official Xinhua news agency’s Hong Kong branch, Beijing’s de facto embassy in the city before 1997, said Zhang had “correctly controlled the timing for every single part of the ceremony, which made the handover ceremony very successful”. Zhu was also involved in the ceremony.

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Zhang also accompanied Jiang on a visit to the United States in late 1997 and was in charge of coordination when Bill Clinton visited Beijing the following year, according to Guangzhou newspaper The Time Weekly.

In 2010, after two years as China’s top envoy in the UN, Zhang was named Chinese ambassador to the US. But his three years there was not easy – it was a time when Beijing and Washington were seeking to deepen economic cooperation in the wake of the global financial crisis amid tensions, especially when then US president Barack Obama revealed his pivot to Asia, a strategy seen as a bid to curtail China’s growing influence in the region.

According to The Washington Post, Zhang was also one of the negotiators for Beijing with US officials when Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese human rights activist, escaped house arrest in Shandong province and fled to the US embassy in Beijing in 2012, triggering one of the most severe diplomatic crises in recent years.