News analysis

Hong Kong's youth activists shrug off Zhang Dejiang visit

Apathy in city poses deeper challenge to the central government

The water-filled plastic barriers stood - almost forlornly - in Wan Chai. The bricks in the pavement outside the government complex in Admiralty that were glued down in case they got prised off to be used as projectiles remained intact.

Police officers deployed all over the city to keep an eye out for protesters ended up looking at their phones instead.

For in the end, few came to the Zhang Dejiang party.

Aside from yellow banners calling for "genuine universal suffrage" fluttering in the wind, cat-and-mouse tactics used by young activists Joshua Wong and Co to try to approach the VIP motorcade, and minor scuffles involving protesters, the elaborate security arrangements rolled out for the third-ranking Chinese leader elicited few responses from ordinary Hong Kongers other than irritation at traffic disruptions.

Surveying a crowd of fewer than 50 pro-democracy protesters on Wednesday evening, administrative assistant Anthony So, 30, said: "Some supporters feel that it's useless to show up nowadays. We're not sure what it can achieve."

Mr Zhang (centre) speaking to a care provider at an aged care complex in Hong Kong yesterday. During his visit to the city, he attended 18 events, including meeting pan-democratic politicians.
Mr Zhang (centre) speaking to a care provider at an aged care complex in Hong Kong yesterday. PHOTO: EPA

Instead, he said, they had gone over to Sheung Shui in the New Territories to heckle parallel traders "as that might produce more concrete results".

The general indifference towards the visit by Mr Zhang - the most senior Chinese leader to come to town since the 2014 Occupy movement - means fewer headlines about violent opposition to Beijing.

But it underscores a deeper challenge to the central government as it seeks to reset the button on ties with Hong Kong: a cynical apathy in the city towards Beijing and whatever change that could come about.

Mr Zhang worked hard on this trip. Over 48 hours, he attended 18 events, including visiting an old folk's home and meeting pan-democratic politicians, whom Beijing routinely denigrates as "the opposition". He both flattered and chivvied Hong Kong as he urged the city to focus on economic development and unite in pushing China's interests.

He said that Hong Kongers' desire to preserve their identity is "worthy of respect" and maintained Beijing's commitment to upholding the "one country, two systems" policy, which has taken a beating in recent times.

But it is unclear if the people are paying much attention.

Young Hong Kongers enamoured of the pro-independence movement did not bother to show up. One of its leaders, activist Edward Liu, whose Hong Kong Indigenous group led the Mongkok riot in February, said: "Zhang Dejiang? Who... cares?"

He told local TV station i-Channel: "We are not interested in 'one country, two systems' or Basic Law, but in building our own country."

That said, Mr Zhang's visit this week is not just about the stated goal of reaching out to all quarters of the society. Behind the scenes, he is trying to whip into shape the fractured pro-establishment coalition - from business leaders to politicians - which had been mutinying against unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying.

In a clear warning yesterday, Mr Zhang said: "We are all in the same boat. If Hong Kong is well, we will all benefit. If Hong Kong is messy, everyone has to foot the bill."

He added that the Chief Executive was chosen in accordance with the Basic Law and appointed by the central government, and he called on all to fall in line behind Mr Leung, saying this is key to maintaining the city's prosperity and stability.

Another of Mr Zhang's goals was ostensibly to assess Mr Leung - and decide if he should be allowed a second term next March - and to check out other possible candidates.

On Wednesday, news website HK01 claimed that a source had revealed that Mr Zhang was dissatisfied with the work report presented by Financial Secretary John Tsang, who many believe is Mr Leung's chief rival for the top job.

Asked about the report yesterday, Mr Leung beamed as he denied the events as described. He also said he will fulfil his duties under the care and support of the central government.

So, never mind what the hoi polloi thinks. Mr Zhang, who left yesterday, likely got what he came to Hong Kong for.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2016, with the headline 'HK's youth activists shrug off Zhang visit'. Print Edition | Subscribe