Top mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs invariably draw close public attention when they visit Hong Kong. During a high-profile, three-day duty visit, Wang Guangya, the new director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, put on a charm offensive. Apart from routine lunches and closed-door meetings with key officials, he attended a televised dialogue with youngsters, checked on food prices at a wet market and gave reporters an opportunity to ask questions - a rare but welcome departure from mainland protocol.
The former diplomat may have impressed some people with his attempt to project an open image. Photographs of him taking a bite from an egg tart, a favourite local delicacy of former governor Chris Patten, dominated local papers. Others who would have preferred a more meaningful exchange may have dismissed his walkabout as a public relations stunt. Wang is directly responsible for Hong Kong and Macau affairs in the central government. It would have been in the interests of Hong Kong and Beijing for him to better feel the public pulse and update his fellow state leaders on the local situation. A starting point would have been for him to meet a broader spectrum of people and share views on issues of public concern, such as Beijing's views on the essential qualities of the next chief executive.
Wang's visit could not be more timely. A recent University of Hong Kong's survey found that two in three people lacked confidence in Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as the chief executive. When asked about Tsang's performance, Wang stopped short of heaping unconditional praise, as former state leaders did on behalf of Tsang's predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa. He frankly pointed out that inflation and soaring property prices would be the major challenges ahead and failing to handle them properly would lead to political problems. He also gave Tsang a reminder to stand firm on policies that he thinks are in Hong Kong's long-term interest, a clear reference to a series of budget U-turns recently.
The message is obvious. The central government maintains confidence in the Tsang team in the remaining year, but the Hong Kong government needs to step up efforts to take care of people in need. And with the annual July 1 protest march just two weeks away, its timing is unmistakable: this is a warning for Tsang to avert a crisis like that which saw Tung resign after a 500,000-strong protest against his government eight years ago. Whether Wang's visit signals a new approach from Beijing to Hong Kong affairs is yet to be seen. But his assurance of no interference in internal affairs should be welcome. The community, including pan-democrat legislators, looks forward to more dialogue with Beijing in the coming years.