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Hopes and fears: Zhang Dejiang visits Hong Kong

You won’t lose your identity: Zhang Dejiang assures Hong Kong it will not be absorbed by mainland China

Visiting state leader talks about localism, independence, and rule of law in a wide-ranging speech, taking a carrot-and-stick approach

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 May, 2016, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 11:23am

Beijing’s third-highest ­official has assured Hong Kong that it will not lose its identity or autonomy to become just another city in China, but warned against independence moves ­.

In an unexpectedly forthcoming and wide-ranging speech during a banquet in his honour on Wednesday night, visiting state leader Zhang Dejiang tried to ease fears about the erosion of the “one country, two systems” policy ­governing Hong Kong.

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But in his call for the city to safeguard the rule of law, the chairman of the National People’s Congress singled out the ­judiciary, which he said should implement the law “seriously” and “justly” without tolerating ­offenders. It was not clear if he was ­referring to recent court rulings in favour of some of the activists being prosecuted over the ­Occupy movement of 2014.

“I hope the SAR government and the judiciary would firmly fulfil the solemn duty to safeguard the rule of law,” he said.

Zhang added society should reprimand any behaviour that breached the rule of law.

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In the 25-minute speech at the Convention and Exhibition ­Centre in Wan Chai, Zhang, also a member of China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, promised Beijing was ­prepared to listen to different views as long as they were for the well-being of Hong Kong.

“While respecting ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law, we would like to listen to the opinions and suggestions from all walks of life and communicate in various ways for the sake of Hong Kong,” he said at the event, which was boycotted by all pan-democratic lawmakers.

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But four of them met Zhang for an hour before the banquet, ­setting a precedent for direct talks with a state leader. They called for the ouster of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, but Zhang did not respond directly, according to the lawmakers.

Commenting on the chief executive’s performance during the banquet speech, Zhang said Leung’s administration “has spotted where the problems lie, and is trying its best to foster ­economic development”.

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“The policies adopted [by Leung] have started working, gradually making some achievements,” Zhang noted, without mentioning the looming election for the top job next year.

Zhang is the first state leader to visit Hong Kong since the large-scale pro-democracy protests in 2014.

He made use of the speech to cover three areas arising from the implementation of one country, two systems: localism, the rule of law and development.

Zhang cited late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平 ), the ­architect of “one country, two ­systems”, reminding Hong Kong of the “original thoughts” behind it. “There are so-called suggestions that the central government was seeking mainlandisation of Hong Kong, or even changing ‘one country, two systems’ to ‘one country, one system’. They are completely baseless,” Zhang said.

The principle, he added, “is the biggest common denominator between the mainland and Hong Kong” and should not be changed.

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Amid growing pro-independence talk, based on the premise that Hong Kong would only remain intact by being separate from the rest of the country, Zhang said those proponents accounted for only “an extremely small number” of people.

“This is not a matter of localism,” he said. “This is secession in the name of localism.

“Hong Kong people’s care of their own way of life and set of values ought to be respected.”

He cited his own background in arguing that localism was not inconsistent with patriotism. Born in the mainland’s northeast, Zhang said he loved his hometown. But he added that as a ­Chinese citizen, “I love my motherland”.

China watcher Johnny Lau ­Yui-siu said Zhang’s only message was to make it clear that independence would not be tolerated.

“Although Zhang’s language was not as strong as previously expressed by state-run media, it does not mean the stance has changed,” Lau said.

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Pro-Beijing lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin saw Zhang’s speech as a mild caution aimed at talk of ­independence.

On development, Zhang said Hong Kong’s international status was decided by its economic standing, and called on Hongkongers to have an “urgent sense” of developing the economy.

Earlier in the day, he gave full support for Hong Kong to participate in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative.