Is Beijing softening its tone towards Hong Kong on major policies?

But underlying message is clear: that the central government expects reciprocal understanding and goodwill from the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2018, 10:04pm

Reading between the lines is necessary when it comes to Beijing’s narrative on major policies, including those about Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”. 

Here comes the latest question: is Beijing softening its tone towards the city? 

This was the impression some got when Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official in charge of the city’s affairs, delivered a speech on Friday conveying the latest “four-point” guidelines from a “central government leader”.

Zhang emphasised the need to achieve the maximum social effect, or the maximal common divisor, whenever promoting Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong. Methods and language “acceptable” to locals must be used, he added, while urging mutual respect be strengthened by “thinking what the other side thinks”. 

It is understood that the “leader” Zhang was referring to is Han Zheng, Beijing’s new point man on Hong Kong. Han succeeded Zhang Dejiang, former chairman of the country’s top legislature, who retired in March. Han is one of the seven powerful members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. 

Amid many of the recent reminders or warnings on the city’s obligation to protect the interests of “one country” so as to maintain “two systems”, Zhang struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone. It was regarded as a sign of Beijing’s concern about being seen as too high-handed in its involvement in the city’s internal affairs – something that has been very much resisted and criticised locally.

However, a deeper dive into Zhang’s speech would suggest it was nothing more than a reiteration of Beijing’s long-time policy – only that he himself this time was promoting what could be a more “acceptable” approach. 

Zhang knows the city well enough. Having formerly been Beijing’s top representative here for five years, he now heads the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council. He is also the deputy director of the party’s powerful working group – headed by Han – overseeing Hong Kong and Macau

He witnessed the signing of a post-quake cooperation agreement between Sichuan and Hong Kong before giving his speech, attended by the city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

After the southwestern province was devastated by a magnitude-8 earthquake 10 years ago, the Hong Kong government mobilised a HK$10 billion fund, together with many non-official donations and offers of voluntary assistance, to help with its reconstruction over the decade. 

Zhang was smart enough to pick this occasion to reveal Beijing’s latest “guidelines”, while praising the Hong Kong-Sichuan joint efforts as a showcase of good cross-border cooperation. 

And to make things easier in future, the current party chief of Sichuan, Peng Qinghua, was Zhang’s predecessor in Hong Kong.

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Zhang’s had several “soft” messages: when it comes to economic integration with the mainland, including development of the Greater Bay Area, Hong Kong proposals will be preferred over those from the mainland; the chief executive will be given more opportunities to announce on Beijing’s behalf beneficial policies from the central government; and mainstream public opinion in the city will be seriously assessed.

But the underlying message is also clear enough: Beijing expects the same reciprocal understanding and goodwill from Hong Kong, while national interests should not be undermined.

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And, last but not least, Zhang ended his speech by promising his office would offer “guidance and assistance” in all policy-related matters in future Hong Kong-Sichuan cooperation. 

Understandably, Beijing’s “guidance and assistance” won’t be confined to Sichuan projects only. What is more important is preventing “guidance” from turning into “interference” – and a way out is to always put yourself in others’ shoes.