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Zhang Dejiang

With Carrie Lam on the cusp of power, Beijing must bridge gulf of mistrust with Hong Kong

Alice Wu says stern words from Zhang Dejiang on Hong Kong’s place in ‘one country’ just weeks before avowed Beijing favourite Carrie Lam takes office shows the extent to which central leaders have been riled by talk of ‘independence’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 6:24pm

Looks like Zhang Dejiang (張德江), Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, chairman of the National People’s Congress and No 3 in the Beijing power “core”, is really hard-core on dealing with Hongkongers.

With his stern warnings in Beijing just over a week ago, he seems a man on a mission to squash those “advocating” independence in Hong Kong and thus bringing all Hongkongers down with them.

His comments ahead of the 20th anniversary of the handover – an elaborate declaration of sovereign power that includes the power to control the pace of political reform, power over the chief executive, and the authority to appoint and dismiss key officials – have understandably raised eyebrows. This does not sound quite like what we usually hear from mainland leaders. While others have made every effort to praise “one country, two systems” and its successful implementation, Zhang has been all sirens and flashing lights.

What more does China want from Hong Kong 20 years on from handover?

Of course, he blames Hongkongers, or more specifically, those who have attempted “to turn Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent political entity, breaking it away from the country”. He said “one cannot turn a blind eye” to attempts to make the city independent. But, as I’ve said many times before, the misguided few do not represent the whole.

Zhang, who is also vice-chair of the National Security Commission, still seems much bothered by the Occupy protests of 2014: never mind that the one precipitating factor for that was the restrictive framework for electoral reform in the city, set out in a white paper by his NPC Standing Committee.

No chance Beijing will reform Hong Kong’s electoral framework in next five years

Mistrust and distrust have grown during the last five years, for many reasons. Yes, we have seen a few people wave the Union Jack and the colonial flag as a way to taunt Beijing during protests – such as when several activists broke into PLA barracks waving the colonial flag on Boxing Day in 2013. Yes, “localists” managed to win seats to the Legislative Council and two have since lost theirs due to their sheer stupidity.

Let’s not shut out the voice of the moderates

But let’s not forget also that “independence” was not formally catapulted into the mainstream political lexicon until after the current chief executive started his 2015 policy address by highlighting a relatively unknown student magazine published by the University of Hong Kong’s student union. While the radicals among us will always attract attention, what about the rest of Hong Kong? Let’s not shut out the voice of the moderates.

We have seen better days since half a million people took to the streets on July 1, 2003 to protest against our then government’s proposed legislation on Article 23, but things have really taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

It’s time to resolve conflicts over ‘one country, two systems’

The Politburo as one threw its weight behind Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor when she was a candidate for chief executive, so why is Zhang now playing up this line of rhetoric when she is on the cusp of being the next leader – or in his words, “the core” of Hong Kong’s political power? The upcoming change of guard offers the chance of a fresh start. Why shackle her now, at the 11th hour?

Flexing Beijing’s sovereign power muscle is not the answer to the growing gulf of distrust.

At the very least, we must question how sabotaging the chance for the leader-in-waiting to heal rifts and build bridges can be not counter-intuitive?

Most of us do not have any illusions about “one country” and what that means. The fact that having a few people scream taunts about independence can get the entire power core that worked up is simply incredible.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA