Chinese Leader Seeks ‘Broader Mind’ From Hong Kong Amid Protests

  • Security keeping critics far from Zhang Dejiang during visit
  • Communists’ No. 3 urges integration with Beijing’s development

Hong Kong Protesters Attack China's Role

China’s top official for Hong Kong urged greater integration with the mainland’s development plans, as protesters struggled to get their pleas for a different future to the National People’s Congress chairman.

QuickTake Hong Kong’s Autonomy

Zhang Dejiang -- the Communist Party’s No. 3 official and the highest-ranking state leader to visit Hong Kong in four years -- issued his call Wednesday at a conference on President Xi Jinping’s signature "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure initiative. In a 30-minute speech that steered clear of contentious political issues, he urged Hong Kong to "take a more active part in the national development strategy."

Activists march to the Government House on May 17.

Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

“I hope that Hong Kong, with a broader mind and vision, would fully seize the major opportunities of the Belt and Road, link its own development with the Belt and Road, and further bring out its own advantages,” Zhang told the gathering at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.

Hong Kong was on high alert for the three-day visit, which comes amid growing political tensions over Beijing’s rule over the former British colony. The city has deployed as many as 6,000 police officers for each day of the trip and established a broad security cordon to keep protesters more than a block from the convention center, citing fears of demonstrations and international terrorism.

Pro-democracy demonstrators, waving flags and banners reading, "Put an end to one-party dictatorship" and "Build a democratic China!" tested security barriers in a mostly peaceful protest timed to coincide with Zhang’s speech. The crowds thinned out after police steered them back toward designated protest zones. Democracy advocates hope to muster more numbers later in the day, with some pledging "guerrilla-style" actions to get Zhang’s attention.

QuickTake Hong Kong's Autonomy

"If he fails to address the political aspect of Hong Kong-mainland relations and only focuses on economic prospects, the outcome from his visit will be negative. Hong Kong people will be disappointed," said Ding Xueliang, a social science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  “It won’t work if you just raise a lot of slogans and do a lot of urging, without making efforts to solve fundamental problems."

Occupy Protests

Since then-President Hu Jintao’s trip in 2012, Hong Kong has been riven by escalating disputes over China’s perceived interference in its governance, including protests in 2014 that shut down key business districts for months and a February riot. The Occupy protests two years ago came after 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.

At the convention center, barricades filled with water were set up to keep protesters at least 100 feet from the venue. Construction sites were halted, trash bins were removed and paving tiles, which were tossed at police during February’s riot, had been glued together. Police said in a statement that authorities wouldn’t tolerate any acts of violence or disruptions to social order.

Police officers guard the hotel where Zhang Dejiang will stay.

Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

One 47-year-old housewife who gave only her surname, Chung, said she joined Wednesday’s protest to let Zhang know she was concerned about what kind of city her grandchildren would live in.

"Things in Hong Kong are slipping down a dangerous edge and he can still help save our city," she said, holding a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the Occupy protests. "I hope he will come and listen to the real people he claims to have come to learn from."

Silk Road

During his speech, Zhang said China wanted Hong Kong to become a financing hub for the One Belt, One Road program, which aims to build a "New Silk Road" of roads, railways, pipelines and ports from Asia to Europe. That includes providing legal services, facilitating capital flows and promoting the Chinese yuan’s internationalization along the route.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who spoke before Zhang, has promoted Xi’s infrastructure initiative to offset a decline in mainland tourists and retail sales, mentioning the strategy four dozen times in his January policy address. After arriving Tuesday, Zhang said Beijing was satisfied with Leung’s work and pledged to listen to Hong Kong’s concerns.

The city’s sagging stock market also got a boost from China on Tuesday, as buying by mainland institutions via an exchange-trading link surged to 2.6 billion yuan ($400 million), the highest level in a year and sent Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index up 1.2 percent. The bump was short-lived, with the Hang Seng sinking as much as 1.8 percent Wednesday.

Meeting Democrats

Zhang Dejiang speaks in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Zhang will attend a banquet at the convention center later Wednesday, where he plans to meet four more moderate democratic lawmakers despite boycott vows by most of their colleagues. Pro-Beijing parties hope to secure a veto-proof super-majority in Legislative Council elections in September, while several new, more radical groups plan to seek a voice in government. 

During his trip, Zhang is expected to tour the Hong Kong Science Park, a hi-tech business-development hub near the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He’s also slated to visit a public housing complex, in keeping with a tradition of Communist Party leaders visiting homes while in the city.

With security insulating Zhang from Beijing’s harshest critics, some pledged more provocative tactics. Demosisto, a political party founded by former student leaders involved in the 2014 Occupy protests, said they would try "guerrilla-style" actions such as rushing Zhang’s car.

"The Hong Kong government wants to create a picture that there is no objection in this city about the rulings from Beijing," Demosisto Chairman Nathan Law said Tuesday after police pressed him to the ground and prevented his group from approaching Zhang’s motorcade on Tuesday. "We want to have direct action."

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