CITY BEAT TAMMY TAM
City Beat
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With Wang Zhimin, what will Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong be about?

New director comes with an easy-going personality, but supports ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘zero space’ for independence advocacy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 10:17pm

It speaks volumes that Beijing’s new representative in Hong Kong chose to make his first public appearance attending the National Day reception organised by local media groups last Friday.

Wang Zhimin, who replaced Zhang Xiaoming a week ago to head the central government’s liaison office, was not only there to get to know the people in the local media, but also to deliver his first official message to the city.

That explained why he took the initiative to walk over to reporters instead of being escorted into a VIP room.

New liaison office chief in Hong Kong reaches out to opposition pan-democrats

And he held up both carrot and stick while eloquently answering questions on all the hot issues. The stick, of course, was aimed at the idea of Hong Kong independence.

Like his predecessor, who was seen as a “hardliner” and is now back in Beijing as head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, Wang was equally stern in warning against independence advocacy.

He even laid down one more bottom line – that besides “zero tolerance”, Beijing would allow “zero space” for the idea of Hong Kong’s separation from China to spread further.

So, with these two “zeros”, especially “zero space”, can the issue of independence be debated in the city? Where and how?

Explain This: why all the fuss about Hong Kong independence?

All this could constitute a real tough challenge for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was on stage with Wang that day for a birthday toast to the People’s Republic of China.

Wang held out carrots, too, from promising to reach out to opposition pan-democratic politicians to feting Lam as a “very capable” leader and inviting the audience to encourage her with applause, having heard that she was not keeping well due to her hectic schedule.

Wang then went on to praise local journalists as a passionately “hard-working” group before offering his best wishes to Hongkongers for National Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival.

And to lighten the mood, he switched to Mandarin-accented Cantonese from time to time, which drew good-natured laughter from the audience.

So, Wang’s personality is apparently different from that of Zhang, but what can that mean?

Over the years, there has been growing controversy over what role the liaison office should play.

Some, especially the pan-democrats, insist it should be no more than “to liaise” between the city and Beijing, as its name suggests.

As a result, the office has been criticised for getting too involved in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, such as in canvassing votes for pro-establishment forces during Legislative Council elections in the past and in the race for the city’s new leader earlier this year.

Beijing attitude won’t change says Carrie Lam as Zhang Xiaoming takes new role

That would explain why, after winning the chief executive election, Lam made it a point to project herself as more independent and pledged not to rely on the office for lobbying lawmakers in future.

Now, with a new director who seems more easy-going and has a pleasant personality, does it mean the office will focus more on “liaising”? And is that what the office is all about?

It may be too early to guess, since “to undertake tasks given by the central government” is one of the five major functions of the office as stated on its official website.

Without doubt, nipping the idea of Hong Kong independence in the bud is the biggest task given to the office now. While Lam does not need the office to win support for her policies in Legco, will she need Wang in her efforts to curb independence advocacy?

All eyes are now on what type of new working relations will be formed between Lam’s administration and the liaison office, which is always there to carry out Beijing’s latest instructions on Hong Kong.