While it didn’t last 79 days, Hong Kong was certainly “occupied” last week by state leader Zhang Dejiang and his enormous security entourage. Wherever Zhang went, roads were blocked, business came to a halt and ordinary people were left wondering about the purpose of their prolonged inconvenience.

It almost felt like September 2014 all over again—except this time it was the police doing the occupying and the would-be demonstrators doing the complaining. And, of course, this occupation lasted only three days.

hong kong police
Photo: Todd Darling.

Try as they might to keep protests out of the view of China’s third highest-ranking official, however, the thousands of police officers assigned to his security could not prevent pro-democracy and anti-China banners from appearing—one of them hanging from the very mountaintop on which police were posted.

Zhang also may have taken notice when five leaders of the recently formed pro-democracy party, Demosisto, managed to get themselves arrested as— chanting “End one-party dictatorship” and “Self-determination for Hong Kong people”—they charged into a road as his serpentine motorcade was approaching. The video, of course, went viral.

So there is at least one positive lesson to be learned from Zhang’s visit to the city: Not even 6,000 cops—rising to 8,000 on the Wednesday of his keynote speech at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai—can shut up Hong Kong.

Oscar Lai held by police
Oscar Lai held by police. Photo: Oscar Lai via Facebook.

Journalists get hacked in our streets, our most prominent newspapers self-censor and abruptly sack respected editors without explanation, booksellers mysteriously disappear and our government plays the terrorism card to suppress protests during the visit of a state leader; still, voices of dissent and disenchantment are heard, reported, posted, shared, tweeted and retweeted.

Despite the many setbacks, free speech remains very much alive in Hong Kong. One country, two systems may be shaken, but it’s still standing.

Zhang came and Zhang saw, but he hardly conquered. Nothing has changed except that the police are now back at their real work of policing, traffic is running a lot smoother in Wan Chai and cash registers in that district’s restaurants, bars and other businesses are ringing again.

In the end, Zhang’s time in the city was much ado about very little.

The centrepiece of his visit was his speech at the “One Belt, One Road” summit held at the Convention and Exhibition Centre. But he didn’t need to block traffic in Wan Chai all day to remind us that the central government wants Hong to play an important role in President Xi Jinping’s grand—many critics say grandiose—initiative to conjure up a very expensive 21st-century version of the ancient network of trade routes, known as the Silk Road, connecting China with Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Photo: GovHK.

We already knew this because our chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who is always eager to please his superiors in Beijing, told us so no less than 48 times in his policy address four months ago.

Zhang’s “ground-breaking meeting” with pan-democratic politicians, while a savvy political gesture, also amounted to nothing. The four pan-dems invited by the chief executive’s office to a 40-minute cocktail reception for Zhang—Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing, Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit, the Labour Party’s Cyd Ho Sau-lan and health services lawmaker Joseph Lee Kok-long—used their time with him to present a critique of the Leung administration and to bemoan the poor state of governance in Hong Kong.

Without responding to a single criticism they made, Zhang, the Chinese leader responsible for overseeing Hong Kong affairs, thanked the foursome for their time and expressed a desire to meet again. Optimists may see this as a hopeful sign. It could also, however, mark the beginning of yet another effort to co-opt moderate pan-dems into support of a political reform process promising democracy but ultimately guaranteeing that pro-Beijing forces continue to hold sway in the Legislative Council while also delivering more puppet chief executives like Leung.

dictatorship one party protest
Photo: Todd Darling.

Sure, clink cocktail glasses with state leaders and revel in the headlines that follow, but pan-dems need to remain resolutely sober about Beijing’s endgame, which clearly does not include a democratic Hong Kong that cannot be managed and controlled by the Chinese leadership.

Abandon “street politics” and focus on economic development. That has always been Zhang’s message for Hong Kong.

He came, he went. Nothing changed.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.