Zhang Dejiang (photo by Lelde Rafelde, Saeimas Kanceleja, CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On May 17, Zhang Dejiang  paid a high-profile visit to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Zhang is a senior member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, ranking third after Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. He currently serves as chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), as vice-chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), of the Central Committee and of the National Security Commission, and as head of the Communist Party’s Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs.

In Hong Kong Zhang attended a forum on the ‘One Belt, One Road‘ initiative. On May 19 he held a speech in which he outlined Beijing’s policy towards the city. He reassured the people of the territory that the Communist government will uphold ‘one country, two systems’ and that the city’s economy and way of life will remain unchanged. However, he also issued a clear warning to political groups opposing the Communist Party and calling for Hong Kong’s independence.

Zhang’s speech may be viewed as a reaction of the central government to the growing discontent of a large number of Hong Kong people with the Communist authorities. Beijing’s rejection of full universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive elections sparked pro-democracy protests that culminated in the Umbrella Revolution of 2014. Recent assaults against journalists and publishers critical of the Communist Party, and most notably the disappearance of five booksellers, further undermined public opinion’s faith in the principle of ‘one country, two systems’.

But although Zhang’s tone during the visit has been described as conciliatory and his meeting with pan-democratic legislators seemed to signal the Party’s willingness to reach out to non-radical political opponents, his speech is conciliatory only in style and not in substance. Let us now analyze the key points of his address and examine salient passages from his speech:

1- Hong Kong is part of China and its destiny is tied to that of the Pearl River Delta

Fate has created a special relationship between me and Hong Kong. When I worked in Guangdong [as Party’s provincial secretary] I often had to deal with Hong Kong affairs and I have made many friends here. Together we have faced and overcome the SARS outbreak and we have promoted co-operation between Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I also have had many frank exchanges of opinions with members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and I have had discussions with people from all walks of life. All these past experiences are vivid in my memory. I also remember attending the first Pan-Pearl River Delta Regional Cooperation Forum in 2004. At that time Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa accompanied me, and he made a deep impression on me. That forum was a success, and it is with happiness that we look back on the hard work of the past ten-odd years and all the results that have been achieved. Recently the PRC State Council issued the “Suggestions on the Deepening of Co-operation in the Pan-Pearl River Region”, giving new impetus to co-operation in the Pan-Pearl River Delta region, as well as giving Hong Kong and Macau more opportunities for growth. After taking up my post in the central government I have continued to care about Hong Kong’s development.

2 – ‘One country, two systems’ must be upheld and the Central Government will not change it

I would like to seize this opportunity to discuss some opinions regarding ‘one country, two systems’ and the Hong Kong issue … [We must not forget] our original purpose. When Deng Xiaoping proposed the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ in order to solve the Hong Kong issue he aimed at regaining the sovereignty over Hong Kong while at the same time respecting Hong Kong’s reality, preserving Hong Kong’s special characteristics and strengths, as well as maintaining Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability (香港长期繁荣稳定).

In the report of the 18th National People’s Congress [2012] the central government stipulated the basic policies regarding Hong Kong and Macau: safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty, security, development and interests, protecting the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau. These measures are consistent with the spirit of Deng Xiaoping’s concept of ‘one country, two systems’, and they reflect our desire to stick to the original intention of the concept. Regardless of the time frame, we must adhere to the original intention of ‘one country, two systems’ and we cannot deviate from it …

‘One country, two systems’ is a fundamental policy of our country, it is a strategy that has been consciously chosen and not a makeshift plan, and it will not be changed … Some people say the central government wants to “mainlandise” Hong Kong (把香港内地化) or even transform ‘one country, two systems’ into ‘one country, one system’. Such statements are entirely unfounded. The majority of the Hong Kong people hope to maintain ‘one country, two system’, and this arrangement is beneficial both to Hong Kong and to the nation as a whole. Hong Kong society can rest assured that the central government will unswervingly implement it.

3 – Dialogue between the central government and different groups of Hong Kong society is welcome as long as it is based on the adherence to ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law.

Hong Kong is a diverse society and there are different opinions on issues regarding Hong Kong’s politics, economy, society and livelihood. This is normal. Upon the precondition of abiding by ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law, as long as one acts for the good of Hong Kong, we wish to listen to ideas and suggestions from all sides. Furthermore, everyone can use any way of expressing their opinions as long as they communicate rationally so that we can remove differences and promote common understanding.

4 – Political groups opposing ‘one country, two systems’ are marginalised and their demands and worries ignored and vilified. Localist (本土) feelings are considered acceptable as long as they do not undermine Chinese nationalism and do not lead to separatist movements.

Recently people have been concerned about and have been discussing some issues regarding ‘one country, two systems’, and I would like to say a few words about this here. The first issue is the question of localism (本土问题). I come from Northeast China and I love my hometown. I am Chinese and I love my motherland. Our Hong Kong compatriots naturally ought to cherish their own way of life and values. As a matter of fact, the preservation of Hong Kong’s original social and economic system and way of life, the principle of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’ (港人治港) and a high degree of autonomy (高度自治) are all important elements of the ‘one country, two systems’ model, and such policies are the best way to care about the actual situation of Hong Kong’s local identity.

At present there is an extremely small number of people (极少数人) who wish to abolish ‘one country’ and who resist the central government, and who even propagate the idea of ‘Hong Kong independence’ (港独). This is not an issue of localism, but a way to use the name of localism to promote separatism. This contravenes the original purpose of ‘one country, two systems’. I believe that our Hong Kong compatriots can understand by themselves whether this is good or bad for Hong Kong, 

5 – The rule of law is sacrosanct and must be upheld. However, no mention is made of the case of the missing booksellers, and the deeper issue of the possibility of the rule of law in a territory which is under the direct jurisdiction of a one-party dictatorship is not addressed.

[The] rule of law (法治) is one of the core values of Hong Kong society. It is the cornerstone of social stability as well as the foundation of freedom. How could we safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability if this cornerstone and this foundation were removed? Everyone is equal before the law, no one can place themselves above it, and no offender has the right to avoid punishment. I hope that the HKSAR government and the judicial authorities will conscientiously fulfill their sacrosanct duty to implement and defend the rule of law. 

While Zhang’s speech may seem to confirm Beijing’s willingness to abide by the Basic Law and uphold ‘one country, two system’, in reality it constitutes a step backwards compared with the past. First of all, Zhang did not mention the case of the missing booksellers; he neither expressed Beijing’s willingness to clarify the events, nor did he suggest to improve Hong Kong-mainland judicial co-operation. Therefore, his call for upholding the ‘rule of law’ sounds insincere, or it may even be viewed as a warning to pro-democracy groups, since ‘violating the rule of law‘ was one of the most common accusations made by the CCP against pro-democracy protesters during the Umbrella Revolution. Second, Zhang did not offer any prospect of compromise regarding universal suffrage. Third, he fully confirmed Beijing’s recent national security laws, including those provisions which state that Hong Kong must contribute to the protection of national security and interests. Fourth, his speech reveals the CCP’s desire to promote Chinese nationalism and to integrate Hong Kong further with the Pearl River Delta.