Leung Chun-ying

Mystery man Zhang Xiaoming signals shift to 'old Hong Kong hands'

Appointing a liaison office chief with experience of the city is a sign of Beijing's new approach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 5:44am

Weeks after his arrival, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong, 49 year-old Zhang Xiaoming, is still a mystery to many. He has not yet made any public appearances, and there is only speculation about his mission here.

The only news about him so far has been a brief Xinhua report released the day after both anti- and pro-government groups took to the streets on New Year's Day. Xinhua said Zhang met the chief executive in a signal of Beijing's support for the embattled Leung Chun-ying.

But questions still surround Zhang's appointment. Is it a positive or negative sign for Leung? Does it mean Beijing is to more intensely oversee Hong Kong? After all, Zhang is a Basic Law expert and "Hong Kong hand". He is close to his long-time boss, Liao Hui , former director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Liao is an influential figure in Beijing's policymaking on Hong Kong, and his support for Henry Tang Ying-yen in last year's chief executive poll was no secret.

Zhang's arrival has also kicked off a reshuffle of the central government's liaison office here. Former head Peng Qinghua was transferred to Guangxi province as its party chief, and deputy head Li Gang moved to Macau. Deputy director in charge of economic affairs, Guo Li, will soon retire and return to Beijing. Another deputy director, Li Guikang, retired earlier due to illness. Who will replace them is not yet known - but expect whoever they are to be familiar with Hong Kong.

Officials in the liaison office have generally come from far and wide - many had little Hong Kong exposure before they took up the job. Zhang is the exception - perhaps the only senior Beijing official whose career has been dedicated to Hong Kong affairs. So far he has remained silent as the rumours have swirled about his agenda.

His background as Liao's former personal secretary is seen by some - especially those who want Leung out of the top job - as a sign Beijing is unsure about the chief executive. They say Liao will pull the strings behind the scenes. But Leung's backers take the opposite view, and have noted that Zhang has known Leung for nearly two decades.

And Liao is due to retire in March anyway, they say. At present he is a vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

The only thing that is clear is Beijing is taking a new approach to the city. It has realised Hong Kong is, as the liaison office's first chief, Jiang Enzhu , put it, an "abstruse book".

Zhang also worked under new party chief Xi Jinping for years in the powerful Hong Kong Affairs Working Group. So if Zhang is seen as "Liao Hui's man", he could also be seen as "Xi's man".

Zhang is here to carry out Beijing's latest policies simply because he is the most suitable "Hong Kong expert". Liao was said to be fed up with the city's complicated situation, and is believed to be looking forward to retirement. So it's pointless trying to guess whose man Zhang is - and as for Leung, it's his performance that will count.