Zhang Xiaoming: A hawk or dove to Hong Kong?

Zhang Xiaoming knows Hong Kong well and some fear he will tighten the mainland's grip, others say that it is too early to tell

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2012, 4:58am

Beijing's new top representative in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, caused a stir last month when he accused "external forces" outside China of meddling in Hong Kong's elections.

In a study guide to the report of the Communist Party's 18th congress, and published in the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po, Zhang called on Hong Kong to pass the controversial national security law required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, "in due course".

Some critics had feared that the Basic Law could be used to suppress organisations which disagree with the government and his remarks outraged pan-democrats in Hong Kong, who took the report as a sign the central government will tighten its grip on the special administrative region.

Having spent 26 years on Hong Kong affairs, Zhang, 49, is one of only a handful of mainland officials with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city's inner political workings.

However, he wasn't always into politics. A friend remembers that in his younger years Zhang was more interested in Cantonese dramas than current affairs.

"Cantonese television series were very popular when China opened up in the 1980s," said a well-placed source. "Zhang and his colleague Xu Ze [were hooked on] TVB and ATV series rented from video shops."

But by the time Zhang took over as director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong last week, he was an expert on the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, and had more experience in the city's affairs than all his predecessors.

Beijing-friendly businessman Chan Wing-kee, a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference standing committee, called Zhang "smart" and "pragmatic", recalling an encounter a few years ago.

"Zhang was taking a business trip in Guangdong and asked if I could arrange a day tour for him and his colleagues to my lychee garden in Dongguan ," Chan said. The next day, Zhang and his colleagues set off in an old 14-seater van.

"In the middle of the journey, a loud sound came from the back. One of the tyres was flat, so Zhang went out and fixed it on the roadside. Lucky enough, they still got a good yield in the end."

Chan sees Zhang as a "driving force" in Hong Kong. "The Beijing leadership has been under a paradigm shift and the ruling elites are a lot younger than the past generations. It draws a close to old people politics," he said.

For Executive Councillor Cheng Yiu-tong it is too early to say whether Zhang is a hawk or a dove, but others hope he can bring change to Beijing. However, if the Central Government decides to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, Zhang will have little choice but to follow suit.

Zhang began his career at the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in 1986, after graduating from Beijing's Renmin University with a master's degree in criminal law.

In his 26 years at the office, he served under directors including Lu Ping , Liao Hui , and Wang Guangya . He also sits on the Basic Law Committee under the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

His experience of Hong Kong's constitutional affairs is expected to stand him in good stead when the city battles out how to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage - expected in 2017.

Zhang has already witnessed Hong Kong undergo a monumental change. In 1996 he joined Lu Ping at several consultation forums in Hong Kong, before the 1997 handover. Zhang was assigned to receive petition letters at the forum. When he filled his predecessors' shoes, he was described as "firm" and "decisive".

Another challenge came, in 2003, when the government proposed Article 23 in the Legco. It sparked an intense debate, with protesters fearing the loss of their freedom of speech. Zhang was chief of a research unit to Liao Hui at that time. His boss was keen to get the bill passed.

Zhang, in charge of overseeing growing tensions in society, was obliged to support Liao.

On July 1, more than half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the Article 23 legislation. It attracted the attention of international media, making the Hong Kong crisis an issue high on the agenda of the mainland leadership.

Vincent Lo Hong-shui, Shui On Group chairman, who has known Zhang since 2003 when he sat on the Preparatory Committee which oversaw Hong Kong's handover, says Zhang's experience works in his favour.

Lo said: "Zhang was the right person to head Beijing's liaison office. Leung's administration is facing daunting challenges, Zhang can better grasp the sentiments of Hongkongers and explain Beijing's policy to [them]."

When veteran diplomat Jiang Enzhu arrived in 1997 to become the first director of the Central Government's liaison office in Hong Kong, he described the city as an "abstruse book" from which he would strive to learn.

As Premier Wen Jiabao last week highlighted six areas for Leung and his administration to resolve, maybe Hong Kong today is an even harder book to read.


Zhang Xiaoming

September 1963 Zhang Xiaoming was born in Taixing City in Jiangsu Province.

1989 He began his work in the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, after graduating from Renmin University of China Law School. He majored in Criminal Law and achieved the LLM degree.

2001 - 2004 Made chief of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office's Policy Research Division.

2004 Became director of the Integrated Secretary of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

2006 Made a member of the Basic Law committee under the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

July 2004 - December 2012 Served as HKMAO deputy director.

December 2012 Appointed as director of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.