Hopes and fears: Zhang Dejiang visits Hong Kong

Loyalty card: state leader’s ‘soft’ take on localism during Hong Kong visit surprises analysts

But Zhang Dejiang was keen to stress again that calls for self-determination or independence would not gain momentum

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 9:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 9:26pm

The distinction made by Beijing’s third highest-ranking official between localism and independence was striking, according to analysts who weighed in on Zhang Dejiang’s warning against calls for self-determination.

On Thursday, before leaving, Zhang said for a second time that Hong Kong was “doomed to be rotten” and everyone would pay a price if locals focused not on economic development but street politics.

“Things like self-determination or Hong Kong independence would not gain any momentum at all,” Zhang said. “That’s my judgment.”

A day earlier, he drew a line between independence and localism, saying the latter was fine but the former was merely “secession in the name of localism”.

State leaders had never commented on localism in a positive manner. Zhang did not shy away from this issue
Professor Qi Pengfei

Analysts said Zhang was speaking in the softest possible manner, to the extent that local sentiments as defined by loyalty or love for one city’s were welcomed so long as the Basic Law – which stipulates Hong Kong as an “inalienable” part of China – was respected.

“State leaders had never commented on localism in a positive manner. Zhang did not shy away from this issue,” said Professor Qi Pengfei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

“‘Localism’ should be seen as a neutral concept and should not be stigmatised. Localist forces are not necessarily secessionists,”added Qi, of Renmin University in Beijing.

The scholar said the central government recognised the need to unite the majority and differentiate pan-democrats and localist groups from those calling outright for independence.

Beijing has been watching with concern the rising anti-mainland sentiments fuelling the city’s politics. This spilled over into a riot in February, when hundreds of protesters set Mong Kok ablaze and attacked police. Weeks later, a core organiser of the riot came a respectable third in the Legislative Council by-election.

In March, some university students formed the Hong Kong National Party and called for the city’s independence. Occupy protesters, meanwhile, formed the Demosisto party to demand self-determination for the city after 2047.

Only through secession from China can Hong Kong survive
The Hong Kong National Party’s response to Zhang’s remarks

Many of these groups did not stage any protest during Zhang’s three-day visit, taking the view that the Communist Party leadership had no say over Hong Kong and they were not deterred by his statements.

“Only through secession from China can Hong Kong survive,” the Hong Kong National Party said in a statement on Zhang’s remarks about localism and independence. “The sense of localism [Zhang highlighted] was merely a tool for China to colonise Hong Kong.”

Ray Wong Toi-yeung, an alleged riot organiser, said Zhang’s visit would have no impact on the level of support for his cause.

Demosisto did take action, organising a guerilla protest outside the Eastern Harbour Tunnel when Zhang’s convoy was heading towards Sau Mau Ping. Five of its members were arrested, including leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung.

Despite Zhang’s strong warning against such advocates, what resonated with ordinary Hongkongers most seemed to be the traffic – which came to a standstill whenever and wherever Zhang visited over the three days. “I’m glad he’s left and no longer blocked our roads,” a user remarked on the government’s Facebook page.