Top China official Zhang Dejiang's charm offensive fails to impress Hong Kongers

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) and Zhang Dejiang (right), who chairs China's communist-controlled legislature, waiting on stage before the opening of the Belt and Road Summit in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) and Zhang Dejiang (right), who chairs China's communist-controlled legislature, waiting on stage before the opening of the Belt and Road Summit in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - Inside the heavily-fortified Wan Chai convention centre on Wednesday (May 18) morning, Mandarin and English were used as China’s third-ranking leader Zhang Dejiang stressed the importance of the national One Belt One Road project and how Hong Kong can play a role.

Outside, protesters yelled - in Cantonese - that they care little about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious initiative to link up 65 countries across three continents. 

Instead, they want “genuine universal suffrage”, Beijing to “stop interfering” in Hong Kong’s affairs, and an end to “one-party dictatorship”.

Clearly, the disconnect between both sides goes well beyond the language used. 

Even as Mr Zhang, in a keynote address to business folks and officials, urged Hong Kong to arm itself with “a broader mind and vision” and “seize the major opportunities” of the Belt and Road project, the focus for pan-democratic Hong Kongers was quite different: Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.

Says analyst Willy Lam: “In Hong Kong, 'one country' is towering over 'two systems'.”

The scenes in Wan Chai underscore the difficulties in trying to sooth over the deeply-fractured ties between the central government and Hong Kong - a goal  for Mr Zhang’s three-day visit here.

 
 

He arrived on Tuesday, China’s most senior leader to visit since the Occupy movement in 2014. 

And one gesture of affection he brings with him from Beijing was a lengthy recitation of Hong Kong’s strengths. 

The city, Mr Zhang said in his speech on Wednesday, is still important to China. 

While delivered in the style of dry formal speeches typical of Chinese leaders, it made references to Hong Kong’s construction expertise, kungfu flicks and even its use of Cantonese. 

Hong Kong remains the pioneer of China’s institutional and structural reform, and its pursuit of innovation-driven development, said Mr Zhang. 

It has undisputed strengths in professional services ranging from law to infrastructure development. 

For instance, Hong Kong companies had supervised projects in two Chinese aid infrastructure programmes in Nepal and Cambodia. Nepal suffered a massive earthquake in April 2015.

“Many buildings in Nepal collapsed, yet the projects under their supervision were largely intact,” he said. “This shows the superior quality of Hong Kong’s professional services, and proves that such services have a big role to play.”

Mr Zhang also complimented Hong Kong for how it inherited and “carried forward” a modern Chinese culture of its own, represented by movies, television and music. 

“Hong Kong’s martial arts movies have loyal fans across the world and have influenced generations of people,” he said, saying that this lays the foundation for deepening cooperation for the Belt and Road project.

The charm offensive was not without its oblique criticisms. 

Hong Kong, said Mr Zhang, “needs to take a more active part in the national development strategy”.

It was a reflection of the Beijing establishment’s belief that Hong Kongers - increasingly critical of the mainland up north - do not sufficiently have the country’s interests at heart. 

Looking ahead, Hong Kong can do more: It can, for instance, promote renminbi internationalisation and help with Belt and Road financing, said the leader. 

For now though, such exhortations cut little ice with the Hong Kongers on the streets. 

A second protest is planned for Wednesday evening, even as Mr Zhang meets selected pan-democratic lawmakers at a cocktail reception. 

Dr Lam dismisses Mr Zhang’s visit as a “public relations stunt”, saying he is doubtful it will change Beijing’s strategy of “squeezing Hong Kong”.

That said, he believes it will help Beijing serve two  objectives: to decide whether or not to reappoint Mr Leung Chun Ying for a second term as chief executive; and to help unite the pro-establishment coalition.