From moderate academic to ‘hardliner’, did we discover the real Zhang Xiaoming or did Hong Kong change him?

Zhang started smoothly but tough stance against Occupy and rise of Hong Kong independence saw him and the liaison office accused of trying to ‘rule’ the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 September, 2017, 10:50pm

What kind of person is Zhang Xiaoming?

After serving for five years as Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, he went back to the capital on Friday to take over as the new boss of his old office. He is now the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council.

So, is it a sign that Beijing is maintaining its grip on the city, since Zhang is known for his tough style? It’s worth noting how Zhang’s image has changed from that of a moderate academic-type before his Hong Kong posting to that of the current “hardliner” amid criticism that the liaison office he headed here is trying to “rule” the city.

Was it Hong Kong that changed him or had his true personality not been fully discovered before?

As a Basic Law expert with deep knowledge of the city’s political system, Zhang was relatively well received when he was promoted to head the liaison office five years ago. He was the first director of the office with a solid understanding of Hong Kong, while his predecessors were technocrats in other fields before coming to the city.

Zhang also had a seemingly smooth start. Seven months after his arrival, he was invited to lunch with lawmakers, including the pan-democrats, making him Beijing’s first representative to visit the Legislative Council for such a high-profile gathering. It was seen as a demonstration of good will on both sides to enhance better communication.

But his relationship with the pan-democrats turned soured after that. Zhang first published an article two years ago to further elaborate on Beijing’s controversial white paper on Hong Kong.

He declared that the city’s leader enjoyed a special status transcending the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. He also argued that the Western concept of separation of powers did not exist in Hong Kong, sparking a big row in the city.

However, it was his strong support for combative former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, and his tough stand against the Occupy movement and the rise of Hong Kong independence advocacy, that made Zhang a “hardliner”.

Criticism against Zhang reached new heights during the election campaign for the city’s leader earlier this year. Those who supported John Tsang Chun-wah, the former finance minister running against then-chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, suggested that the backing for Lam from Zhang and his office was merely his own choice. They believed that President Xi Jinping actually preferred the more popular Tsang, and rumours even suggested that Zhang’s political future was likely to end when Xi would eventually pick Tsang.

Tsang lost and things turned out to be just the opposite.

The obvious explanation is that Zhang’s resoluteness represented Beijing’s thinking more than his personal style. It could be self-deception or wishful thinking to assume there were major conflicts between the liaison office under Zhang and the top leadership in Beijing over tackling the city’s many thorny issues.

“I have always been by your side, never far away,” Zhang said in parting, quoting the lyrics of song by Canto-pop star Faye Wong. He was referring to the reality that he would continue to oversee Hong Kong affairs, though physically far away up north.

Hawkish or not, it’s a result of Beijing’s policy adjustment. All eyes are now on the coming 19th Party Congress, when Hong Kong’s future role is expected to be included in Xi’s political report.

At the same time, the change of the party’s top man on Hong Kong, with the likely retirement of Zhang Dejiang who currently heads the leading group on the city’s affairs, will also provide clearer clues.