HONG KONG – National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang vowed to listen to Hong Kong’s suggestions regarding its autonomy, as he began the highest-level visit by a state leader since pro-democracy protests paralyzed the city two years ago.
Hong Kong was on high alert for the three-day tour by Zhang, the No. 3 official in the ruling Communist Party and the first top leader to visit since 2012, when then-President Hu Jintao celebrated the anniversary of the city’s return to China. In the intervening years, Hong Kong has convulsed over escalating campaigns for greater autonomy, including protests in 2014 that shut down key business districts for months and a February riot involving a “localist” group that injured more than 90 police officers.
“I want to see new and old friends, and how ordinary Hong Kong people live their lives,” Zhang said upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport. “I want to hear suggestions and requests from all walks of society on implementing ‘one country, two systems,’ ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,’ a ‘high degree of autonomy,’ the Basic Law and on the country’s building and development.”
Citing the threat of radicals and international terrorists, Hong Kong has raised its alert level to “high” and plans to deploy as many as 6,000 police officers for each day of Zhang’s visit, twice the manpower assigned to secure Hu, the South China Morning Post reported. That visit prompted violent clashes between demonstrators and police.
The security cordon for Zhang is focused on the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai, where he is staying and scheduled to speak at an event Wednesday on President Xi Jinping’s signature “One Belt, One Road” plan to build a loose network of roads, railways, ports and pipelines across Asia and Europe.
“Zhang comes to assess Hong Kong’s political situation; the Belt-and-Road summit alone wouldn’t bring him here,” said Ding Xueliang, a social science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, noting that Zhang’s oversight portfolio includes the city. “He should have come earlier. Current Hong Kong-mainland relations have sunk to their lowest point probably since the handover.”
About 200 barricades filled with water were set up near the convention center and hotel and garbage bins appear to have been removed from the area, the Ming Pao newspaper reported. Paving tiles, which were tossed at police during anti-Chinese protests in February, had been glued together near the Wan Chai venue. Protesters from the League of Social Democrats hung banners calling for free elections from Lion Rock, one of the city’s most prominent overlooks, despite a police presence there, said Avery Ng, the league’s chairman.
“We’ll have a series of actions, but I can’t give any details,” Ng said by phone Tuesday. “The police are trying to wipe out the voice of the opposition and we can’t let that happen.”
In a sign of the anxiety surrounding the visit, authorities in the adjacent mainland city of Shenzhen detained a Hong Kong resident who they said bought a consumer-style drone to disrupt the event. Barricades will keep protesters at least 100 feet from the Wan Chai venue. The Civil Human Rights Front announced rallies there to coincide with Zhang’s events there Wednesday, while other groups said they’re planning their own actions.
In August 2014, Zhang’s National People’s Congress handed down guidelines requiring a panel dominated by Beijing loyalists to screen candidates for what was to be Hong Kong’s first citywide election for chief executive in 2017. The plan sparked the student-led Occupy protests, which lasted 79 days and brought global attention to the city’s pro-democracy movement. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s attempt to enact the guidelines was defeated in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council last June.
Zhang’s itinerary includes a Wednesday banquet at the convention center, an event being boycotted by several lawmakers from the so-called pan-democratic camp. He has invited 10 legislators, including four of the more moderate democrats, to meet him at a cocktail reception before the dinner.
“The most important thing we want to tell him is that the situation in Hong Kong is really very bad,” said Democratic Party leader Emily Lau, who’ll attend the meeting.
Zhang’s visit comes ahead of key Legislative Council elections in September, when pro-Beijing parties hope to secure a veto-proof supermajority in the 70-seat body and several new, more radical groups plan to seek a voice in government. City authorities have threatened to bar the Hong Kong National Party, which was founded in March on a platform seeking independence from China, from registering on grounds that its positions would violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
The trip may also help Xi lay the ground for a pair of milestones next year. In March, a committee of 1,200 local elites will meet to select the next chief executive, who must be approved by the National People’s Congress. Then, in July 2017, Hong Kong will hold events to mark the 20th anniversary of its handover from the U.K., an occasion that could bring Xi to town for the first time as president.
In 2012, Hu was greeted by hundreds of protesters seeking answers to questions surrounding the death of mainland dissident Li Wangyang, who weeks earlier had been found hanged in a hospital ward in the Chinese city of Shaoyang.
During his trip, Zhang is expected to tour the Hong Kong Science Park, a high-tech business development hub near the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported. He’ll also visit a public housing complex, in keeping with a tradition of Communist Party leaders visiting homes while in the city.
“Mutual distrust is abundant, and both sides are ready to see each other from a worst-case-scenario perspective,” said Ding, of the University of Science and Technology. “This is going to be an entirely different visit than Hu’s trip in 2012. The situation he faces is much more complex.”