City Beat

Southern tours may become a habit for Beijing

NPC chairman not the first to take the pulse of HK from Shenzhen – and he won't be the last

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 5:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 1:02pm

On July 1, 2003, when then premier Wen Jiabao wrapped up a three-day visit to Sars-hit Hong Kong, he didn’t go straight back to Beijing – he went to Shenzhen. There, he was joined by other top central government officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs; they knew something big was about to happen.

Hours after Wen crossed the border, 500,000 people took to the streets in protest against the government and its proposed national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law. Wen was said to be shocked by the mass rally as they watched the live television broadcast. And it is understood that measures which were subsequently introduced – such as lifting restrictions on mainland visitors to boost the city’s economy and allowing more yuan business – were the result of that gathering in Shenzhen.

It is now standard practice for senior Beijing officials to take the pulse of Hong Kong from over the border. When the mainland’s top official on Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Dejiang, went to Shenzhen for three days of talks last week, his schedule was packed. It included meetings with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, senior officials, and political and business groups from the pro-establishment camp.

That left some wondering why Zhang, who is chairman of the National People’s Congress, had bothered to come all the way from Beijing just to meet those who many consider to be the central government’s “people”. What about the pan-democrats? After all, without their votes, there will be no deal on reform for the chief executive election in 2017.

But a closer look at the pro-establishment camp might explain Zhang’s visit. This was an attempt at unity; it’s not just the pan-democrats who are fragmented. Not everyone on the pro-establishment side supports Leung. And with Beijing braced for a tough battle over reform, and the imminent threat from Occupy Central – once the National People’s Congress Standing Committee sets its framework for 2017 – it wants all pro-establishment forces united behind the central and Hong Kong governments.

Among the messages from Zhang in Shenzhen was that the 2017 poll was not the “be-all and end-all” in the city’s pursuit of universal suffrage. Another point, according to someone at one of the meetings, was that regardless of the success or failure of the political reform, “Leung will not step down”.

It’s interesting to note that the first group Zhang met was the Liberal Party – known for its sour relationship with the government. He also spent three hours talking to the Business and Professionals Alliance, the biggest party representing the sector in the Legislative Council.

Given this, it seems the pan-democrats may have been a little confused in pushing for their own meetings with senior Beijing officials, and Zhang – especially after they rejected an earlier invitation for talks with liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming. That could explain why Lam appeared non-committal on arranging talks with the pan-democrats last week, saying it would be tough to schedule before August.

Zhang’s key message from Shenzhen was that Beijing is adamant about introducing universal suffrage in 2017 in accordance with the Basic Law. But how? Will securing four or five votes from the moderate pan-democrats be enough to ensure a plan backed by Beijing is passed by the required two-thirds of lawmakers? If so, it is clear that both sides need to talk – sooner rather than later.

Whatever happens, expect to see more Beijing heavyweights on southern tours in the future.