PR stunt or interference, expect to see more of Zhang Xiaoming
Cosy neighbourhood chats all part of the job these days for higher profile liaison office chief
There were mixed reactions when Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong paid a visit to one of the city's border towns and rubbed shoulders with the locals.
Some said there was nothing unusual about central government liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming wanting to find out for himself what was going on in Sheung Shui and Lo Wu.
Others saw it as a PR stunt. But for some, Zhang was interfering in local affairs. That's what many pan-democrats made of the visit on June 26 - which they saw as a threat to the city's autonomy.
So which was it?
Two weeks ago, Secretary for Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung suddenly dashed off to Beijing for two days. He was on an important mission: to get Beijing's approval on the Hong Kong government's "improvement measures" for the multiple-entry permit scheme for mainland visitors.
He is believed to have proposed that permanent residents of Shenzhen be limited to five to eight visits a year under the scheme, which currently allows unlimited travel. Some have suggested capping the number of trips allowed per day.
Under the scheme, launched in 2003 as part of measures to help the economy recover from the impact of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak that year, 270 million people from 49 cities can visit the city without joining a tour group.
Much to the disappointment of the local reporters who joined So at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in the capital, the meeting with his mainland counterparts ended without resolution. He said only that the plan had been "noted" by Beijing, and it would take time before any decision was made.
Three days later, the liaison office posted photos on its website of Zhang visiting the border checkpoint at Lo Wu - perhaps one of the busiest in the world - and talking to customs officers on the Shenzhen side. There was also a picture of Zhang drinking tea with locals in a cha chaan teng in Sheung Shui, and a snap of him talking to shopkeepers. Zhang was there "to learn on the ground how the individual visit scheme and parallel-goods trading have impacted on people's lives", the accompanying article said.
What the liaison office didn't say on its website was that Zhang's observations would be an important - and perhaps decisive - factor for Beijing in considering changes to the individual visit scheme. It seems So's views, although "noted", were not enough to convince the central government. This reveals the true nature of Beijing's policymaking when it comes to Hong Kong: the "national interests" always come first.
So's trip to Beijing was one of many steps in the process. Any change to the scheme will involve numerous ministries - public security, tourism, and commerce for starters - and agencies in Shenzhen. Ultimately, however, it will be Beijing - not Hong Kong - that has the final say on restricting visitor numbers.
The other issue is whether Zhang's cosy neighbourhood chats carried another message. Liaison office chiefs seldom make community visits, partly because they have traditionally been encouraged to keep a low profile so as not to undermine Hong Kong officials and "one country, two systems".
But this approach may be changing, especially given the political climate in the city. Some have compared Zhang's border-town visit to a symbolic show put on by the man who held the same job in 1983: Xu Jiatung, who was then director of the Xinhua News Agency's Hong Kong branch, which served as China's de facto embassy at the time. Xu's visit to the notorious Kowloon Walled City slum was seen as a demonstration of China's sovereignty over Hong Kong, as the enclave was beyond the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong government.
While both visits caused a stir, this is of course a different time - and the message is a little different: PR stunt or not, it seems Zhang and his colleagues have been told to reach out more and stop hiding in the shadows. They would do well to tread carefully - it's a fine line between listening to the people and interfering.