Han Zheng

Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng the ‘right’ man in charge of Hong Kong affairs as city shuns political gridlock for economic growth

Former Shanghai mayor and party chief described as employing softer touch than predecessor, with expected focus on city’s economics over its politics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 7:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 7:03am

Given his vast experience in steering Shanghai’s development, China’s new point man on Hong Kong is an appropriate choice as the city moves to focus on the economy rather than on the political gridlock of recent years, officials familiar with Beijing said.

The first meeting between Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday served as an official announcement that Han had been appointed the top state leader in charge of affairs for the city and Macau.

Political watchers began guessing in March when party bigwigs met to determine who among the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee would succeed Zhang Dejiang – former chairman of the country’s top legislature and ranked No 3 in the central government leadership – as the point man overseeing Hong Kong and Macau.

National People’s Congress Standing Committee chairman Li Zhanshu and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Yang had also been tipped to take up the unofficial post.

Han – the central government’s No 7 official and ranked first among four vice-premiers – was widely understood to have been assigned the role after he met a group of top Macau officials in late April. The meeting with Lam on Tuesday ended the speculation.

Han, 64, served as mayor of Shanghai between 2003 and 2012. Later he worked as the city’s party chief from 2012 until October last year.

Ip Kwok-him, a local deputy to the national legislature, believed Han was an appropriate choice to oversee Hong Kong and execute guidance from the top leadership.

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“Driving economic development and retaining our competitiveness is Hong Kong’s priority,” he said. “The political situation is not as complicated as before. President Xi Jinping has set all bottom lines clearly and there will be no compromise on certain issues.”

Ip was referring to the city’s calls for independence and universal suffrage, adding that he saw no possibilities of rebooting political reforms in the coming five years.

His view was echoed by Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of a semi-official think tank, The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

“After a few years of study, Beijing’s framework for ruling Hong Kong has been settled, with President Xi laying it out on July 1 last year,” Lau said. “Who is the point man is just a matter of execution.”

On the replacement of the No 3 official with one who is No 7 in the Beijing leadership, Lau believed it did not mean the central government had attached less importance to Hong Kong.

“The ultimate one in charge is Xi Jinping,” he said.

Although the policy framework has been nailed down, Lau believed Han could deliver it with a softer touch compared to his predecessor, who was known for speaking bluntly.

“Shanghai has been opened up for so many years,” he said, referring to the former mayor’s tenure there where he led in spearheading reforms for its economic development focusing on services, including the setting up of a free trade zone and piloting tax changes.

“Han understands better how to deal with Hong Kong.”

Han understands better how to deal with Hong Kong
Lau Siu-kai, The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies

Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, a standing committee member of the nation’s top political advisory group, shared a similar view, recalling a discussion several years ago with Han about competition between Hong Kong and Shanghai.

“We can catch up in no time on hardware, but we have a long, long way to go in terms of software,” Wu quoted him as saying, adding that Han pleaded with Hongkongers not to lower their standards in running businesses on the mainland as that was the only way Shanghai could improve.

“He is a man with vision and really knows the ins and outs,” Wu said, describing Han as a gentleman.

Last month, Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official in charge of the city’s affairs, delivered a speech conveying the latest “four-point” guidelines from a “central government leader”, who was understood to be Han.

Zhang, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, struck a conciliatory tone and emphasised the need to achieve mutual respect whenever promoting Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong.

Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole deputy to China’s top legislative body, said that valuing Hong Kong’s opinion would be Han’s working style.

However, Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai believed it was unrealistic to put aside politics in developing the city’s economy.

“China’s economy is connected to global developments. China has to consider Hong Kong’s role and function in the face of a trade war with the US,” Wu said.

“That leads to a question: would the international community regard Hong Kong as an international city or one of the mainland cities?”

Wu urged Han to respect the city’s autonomy and refrain from intervening in its internal affairs.