Beijing's liaison office does not rule Hong Kong - despite suggestions it has too much influence in the city's affairs - but it has a job to do and must do it, the office's new chief said yesterday.
Zhang Xiaoming also said speculation that Beijing might dump Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was "unfounded talk and should be put to rest". He spoke at a youth forum in Wan Chai - his first public function since starting his job a month ago.
The office has faced bipartisan calls to tone down its approach to local affairs, with pan-democrats repeating the criticism that "Western District", the location of the office, "is ruling Hong Kong".
Zhang countered: "'Western District' doesn't rule Hong Kong, but 'Western District' must do its job and fulfil the tasks the central government has given us."
This, he said, included informing Beijing accurately about Hong Kong's situation, supporting and providing help to the local government and communicating with various sectors.
He flatly denied that Beijing had tightening its grip on Hong Kong, referring to incoming president Xi Jinping's statement that the government's policy on the city was unchanged.
Zhang sparked alarm among democrats in November with an article in which he called on Hong Kong to pass the national security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law "in due course".
This was seen as possibly indicating a harder line by Beijing towards dissent in the city. But Zhang said it would be wrong to conclude from the article he was a hardliner. "I'm a person of principle, but I'm also benevolent and willing to befriend others."
He also seemed to soften his tone on security legislation, saying it should be passed when the local government believed appropriate, but it should not be regarded as taboo. In a departure from the low profile of his recent predecessors, Zhang revealed he had travelled on the MTR, and visited poor families in Sham Shui Po and in subdivided flats.
Democratic Party leader Emily Lau Wai-hing said he must show self-restraint. "Whether you travel on the MTR or in a car, or whether you see subdivided flats or luxurious mansions on The Peak, don't come out and make irresponsible comments."
New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee believed that Zhang was only restating the principle of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong", and his traditional role as a liaison office chief.