How a sieve sent a strong message to Beijing over Hong Kong's election process
Diplomacy was main fare when legislators met Beijing's man, but the story doesn't end there
People have been dining out on the story of the first-ever lunch hosted by the Legislative Council president for the central government liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming on July 16.
It was that rarest of events - a top Communist Party official from Beijing meeting legislators from capitalist Hong Kong for an official midday meal.
Cynics might be forgiven if they expected some slogan shouting, banner stretching or ballistic launching of banana skins and the like. But nothing of the sort came to pass. It turned out to be one of the most polite lunches ever held in the grand dining hall of the Legislative Council, with everyone at their diplomatic best.
Sundry letters and interesting items were presented to Zhang, including a book on the Occupy Central movement and a sieve, both of which sent a strong message to Beijing not to interfere with Hong Kong's election process by screening out candidates it does not favour for the next chief executive election in 2017.
It must be said that the call for a democratic Hong Kong has been an important issue in the hearts and minds of Hongkongers since the 1980s. Now, under "one country, two systems", the call has become persistent and louder.
Zhang looked happy and confident, and appeared dexterous enough to pick up spilled beans with his chopsticks.
He was also sharp enough to make full use of the opportunity to grab the microphone and deliver a couple of punchy sound bites. After thanking his host, Zhang observed that the lunch was "not the banquet at Hongmen". This allusion to a feast that took place in ancient China between two opponents who each sought to eliminate the other set a tone of goodwill. It was a good start.
He said he came to have a chat with old friends and hoped to make many new ones. He stressed that the sincerity with which the central government supported a democratic Hong Kong should not be doubted, as it was clearly enshrined in the Basic Law.
In a reference to the sieve he received, Zhang said one should never underestimate the importance of a sieve, which served the useful purpose of separating the wheat from the chaff.
No doubt Zhang is perceptive. But is he perceptive enough to see the irony that if there were to be any sieve at all in the election process, it ought to be that of the Hong Kong public's opinion?
His objection to Occupy Central is well known and he might have felt an undercurrent of tension, particularly as Hong Kong's chief executive has yet to come up with any ideas for a consultation on the electoral process. One wonders whether today's good start might not turn out to be tomorrow's "banquet at Hongmen, Hong Kong edition". What then?
Elizabeth Wong Chien Chi-lien was secretary for health and welfare from 1990 to 1994 and a legislative councillor from 1995 to 1997.