Zhang Dejiang’s inspection tour of Hong Kong highlighted the depth of disconnect that exists between Hong Kong and the Mainland. In attempting to address core concerns, the tour served only to further highlight the fundamentally different socio-political culture between the city and Beijing. It is a difference the SAR government cannot, and our national government will not, acknowledge.

zhang dejiang

As head of the National People’s Congress, Zhang is the most senior Chinese government official to visit the city since the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014. That this would be, according to official media, an “inspection tour”, and not a “visit”, as official trips had previously been termed, was very much part of the message from Beijing. It establishes clearly the context by which Beijing defines its relationship with Hong Kong, and if not indicative of a shifting interpretation of the principle of “one country, two systems”, then that past pretences have been shed.

See also: Hong Kong laid on a big, expensive show, but was Zhang Dejiang visiting or ‘inspecting’ us?

Upon his arrival, Zhang’s message, of having come to “see”, “listen” and to “speak”, seemed admirable. There was nothing in his smile that seemed insincere. His articulation was precise. Yet in the way Zhang engaged with people, in his choice of words and in the way he spoke, he was unmistakably alien. His attempts to ingratiate himself with locals, however well intentioned, as when he gestured playfully to “mai dan” (to get the bill), served only to stress his foreignness.

More significant is how foreign the nature of the authority he represents was, and in the way this authority is presented. The security that surrounded his tour was to Hong Kong eyes excessive, and unduly restrictive for a politician with a genuine wish to see and listen to the people. To justify this level of security as “counter terrorism”, thereby implying that localists and students pose a genuine terrorist threat, was absurd.

police zhang
Photo: Dan Garrett.

Regardless of their perceived faults, and whether or not we agree with their politics or positions, Hong Kong politicians and government officials are still recognisably Hong Kong people. In how they conduct themselves, in their politics and in the way they articulate a point, and in style, sensibilities and etiquette, we recognise a familiar culture.

We interpret the message of having come to “see”, “listen” and “speak” in the context of an honest dialogue – to see, listen and speak to each other. What Zhang meant though was quite different. In his political culture, it is for authority to see and listen for itself, and to then speak in pronouncement. For Beijing this is a demonstration of respect. However, for Hong Kong, such a paternal, master and subject relationship is imperial. It is also not the relationship between a nation and its people.

So there was something especially undignified in having to watch those select few who could represent this city so completely shed any vestige of their own cultural and political identity. What we witnessed was a host powerless in his own home; not allowed even to define himself and his setting. It was Zhang, our guest, who set the rules.

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang at the banquet held in his honour. Photo: GovHK.

At a banquet hosted by our government, Zhang sought to address some of the city’s more pressing concerns. Principle among these is that Beijing is increasingly interfering in Hong Kong affairs, eroding the independence of institutions upon which Hong Kong’s values and way of life are founded, and which are supposedly guaranteed in the Basic Law. “There will be no Mainlandisation [of Hong Kong life],” he declared, “Hong Kong people’s care of their own way of life and set of values ought to be respected.” But yet again, his words as Hong Kong understands them contrast sharply with what we saw.

Long tables lined with name cards. Red table clothes. Red backdrops. Red flowers. At every venue communist symbolism replaced the more muted hues and understated style of Hong Kong officialdom.

Hong Kong was made to watch as Zhang’s every entrance and every pronouncement was greeted with the fast, distinctive clatter of forced applause. His every gaze was met with a forced smile, a visage that all too often cracked upon his passing. The awkwardness of every meeting was evident. This was not a meeting of one people, let alone one “family” for whom one may presume there to be one understanding.

Zhang Dejiang
Zhang Dejiang addressing 200 attendees. Photo: GovHK

We watched as Zhang held court at the head of a long table as the working report on Hong Kong was read. On the table in front of him was placed only a large bouquet of flowers. Everyone else, including his supposed host, sat to the side, eyes down, pens at hand and notepads open.

Such choreographed exercises in deference may both define and symbolise the nature of political power on the Mainland and within the Chinese Communist system, but they do not represent Hong Kong. They are the very anathema of Hong Kong’s values.

Zhang does not understand that the most acute fear of Mainlandisation is not migration or the increasing integration of the city’s economy, but the Mainlandisation of our political and civic environment – a change in those civic and legal institutions on which the Hong Kong way of life, and indeed Hong Kong’s competitive advantage, is founded. The concern is not just of structural change, but of a change in our operating culture.

Zhang warned “secessionists” that “turning away from ‘one country, two systems’ will result in Hong Kong becoming rotten.” What he fails to see is that by attempting to define the Chinese identity around the party line, and labelling the democratic movement and any critic of the party line “non-Chinese,” it was Beijing that defined the politics of localism. More terrible than the guillotine is to die slowly on the pyre, and for a small but increasing minority of Hong Kong people, alienated and devoid of hope, there is at least dignity in choice alone.

Lee Bo Protest, bookseller disappearance protest
File photo: HKFP.

In a veiled criticism of the way Hong Kong’s courts have and continue to handle anti-government protest cases, Zhang called on the judiciary to “implement the law seriously and justly without condoning offenders,” and to “firmly fulfil the solemn duty to safeguard the rule of law.” What he does not understand is that it is precisely such political pressure that is a challenge to the courts. It is when judges are demanded to be “patriotic” that the rule of law and judicial independence, guaranteed by the Basic Law, is threatened.

It is also hard for Hong Kong people to accept Zhang’s call for the public to support a chief executive simply because he was “elected in accordance with the law and appointed by the central government.” This may legally confirm Leung Chun-ying as chief executive of Hong Kong, but no more. It does not justify, morally or otherwise, his authority; nor does it follow that for this reason alone people ought to support him. It is not reasonable to expect Hong Kong people to support someone on account of his position, or to love a nation because of a directive to do so.

The unease many in Hong Kong feel is that of the farm animals of Orwell’s barnyard fable. We want so desperately to believe we are no longer subjects of a foreign and alien authority, yet we find ourselves tormented by the evidence of our own eye and of suspicions we can not help but think. Hope has been slowly eroded by the growing realisation that we remain in servitude; that this China will not be our nation, but our new masters. We remain subjects, but now our subjugation is total. We must be thankful of the pigs. We must love Animal Farm.

As we watch, from the outside, we see authority in this city transform. “From pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Visually and in manner the two systems have become one.

evan fowler

Evan Fowler

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Evan is a UK-based researcher and writer on HK and China affairs.