State leader Zhang Dejiang arrived in town on Tuesday, and the Hong Kong government is pulling out all stops to make sure he is protected during his three-day visit.
Costly construction projects are being suspended to ease his brief commute through Wan Chai from the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where he will be staying, to the Convention and Exhibition Centre, where he will deliver the keynote address at a summit focused on China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” trade strategy.
Otherwise, you see, there wouldn’t be enough room to accommodate Zhang, his personal bodyguards, elite sharp-shooters from the Central Security Bureau, members of the Hong Kong Police Department’s VIP Protection Unit and, finally, the pièce de résistance: an army of 6,000 police officers (working in two 3,000-strong shifts) who will be trailing Zhang and his entourage wherever they go while he is in the city.
All this for a man 99 percent of the people in Hong Kong would not recognise if he were staring them in the face.
Let’s put this in perspective. Yes, Zhang—as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the official responsible for overseeing Hong Kong affairs—is an important man whose security should be safeguarded. But is he more important than, say, the Chinese president? Indeed, twice as important?
When then-President Hu Jintao paid a visit to Hong Kong in 2012, he rated only 3,000 officers. In 2011, then-Vice Premier Li Keqiang (now premier) required a force of only 2,000 to feel safe in the city.
The last time Hong Kong saw a security operation on the scale being mounted for Zhang, it was the summer of 2008 and the city was hosting the equestrian events for the Beijing Olympics.
So what’s changed in last several years to ratchet up security concerns for high-ranking Chinese authorities visiting the city?
Hong Kong officials cite the threat of Islamic terrorists like those who struck in Brussels earlier this year and in Paris last November. They’re also worried about separatists from China’s restive Xinjiang region mounting some sort of attack. Finally—and here is an entirely strange, new and unwarranted addition to this menacing list—they say radical localists are now a security concern on the same level as international terrorists.
That’s no doubt why, in addition to all the other security measures being put in place, government workers have been busy applying glue to the pavement outside the Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Legislative Council compound in Tamar and in Mong Kok, where in February rioters labeled radical localists dug up some 2,000 bricks that were then used in an attack on police.
But come on: Brussels, Paris, Xinjiang and Mong Kok? Do those four places belong in the same sentence, paragraph or even universe?
We can accept that ISIS attacks in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere qualify that group of extremists as a worldwide threat against which every state and city needs to guard. Fair enough.
And, for the sake of argument, let’s concede that Xinjiang is also a legitimate security concern for central government authorities … while ignoring the fact that China’s systematic oppression of the Muslim Uyghur people of that region has created the backlash officials now brand as terrorism.
That leaves us with Mong Kok—which may have been the site of a nasty riot sparked by the eviction of street hawkers, but the unfortunate events of that first night of the Lunar New Year hardly qualify as an act of terrorism. You don’t need 6,000 police officers to protect Zhang from the rag-tag band of hooligans who tore up the streets of Mong Kok.
Besides, it’s safe to say that those who perpetrated the violence in Mong Kok fall into that 99 percent of Hong Kong’s population who would not recognise Zhang if they ran into him in the street. They might, however, be tempted to throw a brick or two at 6,000 cops making passage through Wan Chai virtually impossible for ordinary working people trying to go about their usual business over the next three days.
The central and Hong Kong governments don’t seem to know what to do with the localist movement. One day, localists are an insignificant fringe group whose calls for an independent Hong Kong nobody except themselves takes seriously; the next day they are terrorists capable of striking at a visiting state leader.
As Zhang’s bloated security phalanx brings traffic to a standstill, the spectacle will be seen not as a symbol of the power and authority of the central government over Hong Kong but, rather, of that government’s fear of and detachment from the 7.2 million people who live here.