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What a new era with Xi Jinping’s ‘dream team’ means for Hong Kong

Tammy Tam says selection of core seven shows how officials are picked for ascension, while former liaison office head Zhang Xiaoming never really left

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 October, 2017, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 October, 2017, 10:41am

For journalists covering China’s twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, the defining moment came last Wednesday when President Xi Jinping unveiled his “dream team” which will lead the country into a “new era”.

But one face in the new line-up caught the attention of the whole city – Li Zhanshu, Xi’s trusted right-hand man.

Ranked third out of seven in the top leadership order, Li is expected to become the head of the national parliament in March, which means he is most likely to be in charge of Hong Kong as that role is usually taken over by the country’s top legislator.

Another important promotion at the congress must not be missed – that of Zhang Xiaoming, a man who is no stranger to Hongkongers after serving as the central government’s top representative in the city for five years.

Following his transfer back to Beijing in September to head the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), he was not only elevated during the just-concluded congress to a full member of the new Central Committee, but also promoted to the post of deputy head of the party’s leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs – a decision-making body under the powerful Politburo which reports to Xi.

This group was once headed by Xi himself while he was vice-president, and is currently helmed by Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), who will retire in March.

Moderate academic or tough hardliner: which was Zhang Xiaoming?

Under China’s current political structure, Hong Kong policy directions are set by this leading group; the NPC, as the state’s supreme organ of power, has the ultimate legal jurisdiction to oversee the implementation and the interpretation of the Basic Law.

The HKMAO, headed by Zhang, and Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong are the two policy implementation executive branches.

However, handling Hong Kong apparently requires the involvement of other departments, as the city’s affairs can be linked to the country’s many domestic and diplomatic decisions.

That explains why the leading group has three deputies: Vice-President Li Yuanchao; minister of the party’s United Front Work Department Sun Chunlan; and state councillor in charge of foreign affairs Yang Jiechi. Sun and Yang were elected into the Politburo last week, but Li has apparently reached the end of his political career as he failed even to make it into the Central Committee.

Out with the technocrats, in with China’s new breed of politicians

Other members of the group include senior officials from various important ministries such as the National Development and Reform Commission which looks after the country’s development plans and major infrastructure projects, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Transport. They reflect the need for Beijing’s policymaking on Hong Kong to be multi-dimensional.

Thus, with his new title, Zhang now has a bigger say in the formulation – not just execution – of policy. He’s also the one in his group with the most first-hand knowledge of the city.

Zhang on Friday published a long piece to further elaborate Xi’s thinking on Hong Kong, stressing that both the city’s sovereignty and governing power were back in the hands of Beijing after 1997. At the same time he highlighted Beijing’s commitment to “one country, two systems”, as this formula has become one of the 14 principles of Xi’s thought, which was enshrined in the party constitution last week.

The message here for Hongkongers: Xi is someone who prefers promoting officials with strong local work experience, just as he did in picking his core team, but he needs those who can firmly stick to party lines.

So, those who were once given to wishful thinking that Zhang was called back to Beijing because of his uncompromising style will have to accept this reality: he never really left.