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Hong Kong politicos show loyalty to China even as city in turmoil

Delegates to National People's Congress met Xi and discussed poverty

When the bill to introduce a national security law in Hong Kong was announced at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in late May, the city's contingent applauded along with the rest of the delegates to the National People's Congress. The legislation has triggered fresh protests in the semi-autonomous city. (Source photo by Reuters and Xinhua/AP)

In the last week of May, the Hong Kong delegation to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee and the National People's Congress, the country's annual gatherings of its political elite, made its way to Beijing by bus across the border. They then boarded chartered Air China flights to the capital, where they were assigned hotels by a somewhat arbitrary process, after elaborate tests and waivers of the normal quarantine rules, according to delegates Nikkei Asian Review spoke to.

Attendees were a who's who, both of China's senior political figures but also its entrepreneur rock stars, such as Robin Li of Baidu and William Ding of NetEase, whose gaming company is in the midst of a secondary listing in Hong Kong. The combined wealth of the 2,000 delegates easily amounted to tens of billions of dollars.

Gone were the bottles of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages that in the past greeted delegates in their minibars, a reflection of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign and the austerity imposed in the wake of the virus. The snacks were equally basic, missing the sunflower seeds that many mainlanders crave.

Outside mainland China, including in Hong Kong, there is criticism over how the country is handling various challenges, not least the protests in the city. These also include the initial efforts to suppress news of the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus; the way Beijing has dealt with the U.S.; and questions regarding the government's somewhat restrained policy response to the economic slowdown and loss of jobs, about which there is no comprehensive data.

But seen from the eyes of the Hong Kong delegates -- a group that is selected precisely because of their perceived loyalty -- it has been years since Xi has been regarded with as unwavering support as now. That is surprising since earlier many of these same attendees had questioned his support of state-owned enterprises at the expense of private entrepreneurs, his canceling the two-term limit on the presidency and his backing for Hong Kong's efforts to introduce an extradition bill with the mainland.

This renewed support owes much to a resurgent nationalism that has emerged at least partly in response to that external criticism and to Washington's efforts to isolate China.

To the delegates, even the way the Red Flag limousines were lined up perfectly in the courtyards of their hotels to whisk them to the Great Hall of the People was a source of pride. "That shows what an efficient machine China is," explained one delegate to Nikkei Asian Review, displaying photographs of the parking lot.

The fortunate technology group was put up in the hotel adjacent to the Beijing Convention Center, which had a small garden where Neil Shen, founder of venture capital firm Sequoia Capital China, was seen running in circles between 20 and 30 times in a desperate search for exercise most mornings. But the technology group only got Premier Li Keqiang, not Xi, this year for the small group discussions.

It was the turn of the lucky so-called economists -- a group of about 150 which included many investors and entrepreneurs -- ensconced in the somewhat shabbier Railway Hotel to have a (relatively) freewheeling exchange with Xi.

Much of the discussion was devoted to poverty eradication. "We had 60 million people below the line at the end of last year and this year some people have fallen back into poverty but we will not leave anyone behind by the end of this year," said Xi, according to delegates.

The president also discussed the need for self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs with Liu Yonghao, the patriarch of the New Hope Group, originally a feed maker and one of the earliest private companies in the country, in an unspoken return to government policies that were abandoned at least nominally after China joined the World Trade Organization 20 years ago.

A bureaucrat from Chongqing in mountainous Sichuan -- home to many of China's pandas -- reminded Xi of a visit he made to that city when he was party secretary of Zhejiang in 2004 and they agreed that "green mountains are golden mountains," since they bring in tourism and therefore revenues.

An economist from a local brokerage suggested that Xi needed more market input for the next five-year plan. In response, Xi reiterated his pledge to rely on the market allocation of resources but added that the government has to have a role when that doesn't work. "It is a dynamic process," he added.

When the bill to introduce a national security law in Hong Kong -- which critics have condemned as the end of the territory's autonomy -- was announced at the Great Hall of the People, the city's contingent applauded along with the rest of the delegates, including those who opposed the extradition bill last year at this time.

The overwhelming message was one of national pride and unity -- even as the rest of Hong Kong looks north and holds its breath.

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