Central seems strangely uncrowded this morning. The dozens of police who have been hanging around listlessly at intersections for the last three days have gone home for some well-earned leave, to put their feet up and watch re-runs of CSI. Workmen are coming in to retrieve the thousands of barriers along the sides of the walkways, transporting them back to the World’s Hugest Barrier Storage Depot up in the New Territories. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang has left the city.
People wondering what all the fuss was about will be interested to hear that Li was ‘winning hearts and minds’, leaving one lawmaker enthusing about how easy going and approachable he is, judging from his encounters with ordinary people.
We will take his word for it. Security for this visit was extraordinarily tight. To those on the receiving end of the precautionary measures, it was calculated and targeted against them personally. Radical legislator Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung was not allowed into the grand dinner because he is Long Hair. Students were kept at a distance in order to muzzle their demands that China release political prisoners. The media were penned up beyond camera-range in order to infringe press freedom. A guy was bundled away by plainclothesmen for wearing a Tiananmen massacre T-shirt in order to suppress freedom of speech.
Except it wasn’t about these people or infringements of liberty at all. You can wear any T-shirt today, students can demand whatever they want, and the press photographers can get in everyone’s faces again. This was all about insulating Li Keqiang, the next Premier of the PRC, from any possibility of anything at all untoward or off-script. It must have been ordered by Beijing – perhaps by Li himself.
Police spokesmen claimed that security was no tighter than on similar visits by latter-day imperial rulers, like that of Russian President Medvedev in April. The phobia about letting pedestrians near roads to be used by the honoured guest was the same (on the evening Medvedev went to the airport, people had to wait; after the entourage had flashed past beneath empty walkways, they were allowed once again to cross Connaught Road). But the rest of it – keeping everyone even further away than usual from the action, getting panicky about T-shirts and so on – seems to have been laid on specially for Li.
The Police Commissioner mentioned that “the terrorist threat on the Mainland” was a concern. He didn’t say of whom. Most likely, though, this is the future Premier getting into his forthcoming new role. You visit a place, have corny photos taken with common folk – which are all the press are given – you talk a lot about harmony and development and prosperity and partnership and cooperation, and you listen to everybody say how welcome and wonderful you are, and you even start to believe it after a while. You can’t have the magic and illusion shattered by someone shouting about poverty, imprisoned writers or dead protestors.
‘Snap, crackle, pop’ eat your heart out: we have ‘Potential, vigor and vitality’!