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Willy Lam: China's No. 3 man pours cold water on Hong Kong's independence movement

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Police confront protesters during a demonstration against a visit by Zhang Dejiang, China's No. 3 official, in Hong Kong on May 17.   © Reuters

Zhang Dejiang, China's third-ranked leader, warned the people of Hong Kong not to "seek secession in the name of localism" during a three-day visit to the territory that ended May 19.

However, Zhang, the head of China's National People's Congress and a member of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, also assured the public that Beijing would not intrude in Hong Kong affairs.

The parliamentary chief pledged that the "one country, two systems" formula, coined by the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping to bring about the absorption of the former British colony into China, "will not become 'one country, one system.'"

"There will be no mainlandization of Hong Kong [life]," he said at a lavish banquet hosted by the city's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. The local population's way of life and set of values ought to be respected, added Zhang, who also heads the Communist Party's Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, China's highest decision-making body on the territory.

Returning to the same topic moments before leaving Hong Kong, Zhang used tougher language in a warning to "secessionists."

"Turning away from one country, two systems will result in Hong Kong becoming rotten," he said. "Then we all have to pay the bill."

FEELING THE SQUEEZE Despite his assurances that Beijing will keep its distance, there are unmistakable signs that the mainland government has been tightening its grip on Hong Kong, particularly since President Xi Jinping took power three and a half years ago.

For the first time, the official Chinese media used the words "inspection tour" to describe such a visit by a high-ranking Chinese leader. On previous occasions, including when former presidents Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao were in town, the media simply used the term "visit."

"Inspection" carries connotations of a central government official checking on the state of affairs in local administration. This is despite the fact that under the one country, two systems arrangement, Beijing has no role in Hong Kong's affairs except in the areas of defense and foreign relations.

It was also telling that the Leung administration mobilized as many as 8,000 police officers to make sure that Zhang could neither see nor hear protesters -- this in a place where demonstrations are almost a way of life.

More disturbing was Zhang's apparent attempt to undermine the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary. After criticizing the "very small minority of Hong Kong citizens" who seek independence, he called on the judiciary to "implement the law seriously and justly without condoning offenders."

According to Labour Party legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, Zhang was putting pressure on the judiciary to mete out heavier sentences to, for example, participants in the massive Umbrella Movement demonstrations of 2014. Lee said pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong have attacked and tried to compromise the independence of the judiciary, which he called "the last line of defense for Hong Kong values."

DRINKS AND DEMOCRACY Zhang, who is 69 and due to retire at the Communist Party's 19th congress next year, did try to reach out to pro-democracy politicians during a half-hour meeting over cocktails with members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council. Emily Lau, who heads the Hong Kong Democratic Party, told Zhang that "many people are very unhappy about the state of governance [in the territory] and they demand a faster pace of democracy."

Lau and three other liberal legislators who were allowed to spend 10 minutes with Zhang also asked Beijing authorities to replace Leung, who is widely unpopular and seen as a divisive chief executive. According to Lau, however, Zhang merely said he would bring their views back for consideration by the top leadership. And on more than one occasion, Zhang expressed support for Leung and his team.

Before his departure, Zhang said that "since Leung was elected in accordance with the law and appointed by the central government, public support for him would be beneficial to Hong Kong's prosperity and stability."

An electoral college of 1,200 people, mostly politicians and community leaders hand-picked by Beijing, will in March next year elect the territory's chief executive, who is equivalent to a mayor. Because of his perceived willingness to do Beijing's bidding -- including the expected promulgation of a national security law in 2018 -- Leung is considered the odds-on favorite to win a second term.

However, Chinese sources in Hong Kong indicated that one key off-the-record purpose of Zhang's visit was to "size up other contenders" for the top job. Chief of Administration Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's No. 2 official, is considered a possible contender. Despite a reputation for bureaucratic infighting, Lam maintains a close-to-the-people persona and has endeared herself to the civil service as well as members of the business community and the middle class.

DEVELOPMENT HOPES Apart from politics, Zhang, a former party secretary of Guangdong Province and an ex-vice premier in charge of infrastructure and industry, also focused on the topic of developing Hong Kong's economic potential.

While attending a conference on Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" development plan, Zhang said Hong Kong could fully avail itself of the plan's series of megaprojects to boost economic growth. "The central government holds the view that Hong Kong possesses a multitude of unique strengths in the development of One Belt, One Road," Zhang said.

But with the Chinese economy slowing, the development initiative appears to have been temporarily put on the back burner. That is because the bulk of the big projects associated with the program -- ranging from high-speed railroads in Indonesia and Malaysia to gigantic ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan -- are financed by Chinese banks and state-owned conglomerates.

While Zhang did refer to expanding the role of Hong Kong as an offshore center for the yuan, China's currency, the potential for profits to be made by local financial institutions is far less rosy than generally forecast.

According to the new political party Demosisto, whose officials include 19-year-old Joshua Wong -- a prominent student leader of the Umbrella Movement -- one reason college students and young people wanted to organize a referendum to determine Hong Kong's future was the constraints that Beijing had put on the island's democratic development.

With several nativist-oriented political parties fielding candidates for the all-important parliamentary elections slated for September, yet another purpose for Zhang's "inspection" trip was to rally public support for pro-establishment political parties and figures -- and to isolate those backing some form of Hong Kong independence.

Zhang may have boosted the morale of the Communist Party's faithful in Hong Kong, but the ironclad security around him only reminded most Hong Kong citizens of the special privileges and supercilious attitudes of senior cadres. Negative impressions of Zhang among the public date back to 2003, when he was party boss of neighboring Guangdong. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed 299 Hong Kong citizens, originated in Guangdong. It is believed that the illness got out of control because of Zhang's decision to cover up casualty figures in the early -- and most critical -- stage of the outbreak.

Willy Lam is an adjunct professor in the history department and the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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