For a ‘historic moment’, it’s not much to get excited about, really. The Chinese government’s top official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, is to have lunch with the city’s legislators. To some, this is noteworthy simply because it hasn’t happened before. To others, it sort of feels meaningful – but it depends on why it is happening now.
There was a time when formal contacts between the Liaison Office and a branch of Hong Kong government were seen as sinister – a mixing of well water and river water. Indeed, for the first few years after the 1997 handover, Beijing’s emissaries here were close to invisible. Today, they openly mingle around town. This is evidence of a tightening Mainland grip on the Big Lychee or a sign of a growing normalization of relations between the Central People’s Government and the Special Administrative Region, according to taste (the two are not necessarily exclusive). Radical and vociferous pro-democrats are saying they welcome the lunch idea, which is the main thing.
It is all about the pan-democrat camp, and the pesky people who vote for them and turn out, in body or at least spirit, on occasions like the July 1 march. The Communist Party’s traditional Leninist-feudal attitude has been that pro-dems, as people who refused to kowtow, were non-people. It was considered a big deal when some who were barred from even entering the Mainland were permitted to cross the border on a Legislative Council trip in 2005. It was a major deal when some HK Democratic Party figures were invited to the ugly skyscraper in Western to sit with Liaison Office officials and discuss political reform in 2010 – though rival members of the pro-dem camp failed to recognize the symbolic significance of the all-powerful one-party state giving face to an opposition whose existence it had refused to acknowledge for years, and the DP ended up having to kowtow to their fellows’ anti-Beijing political correctness.
Both these ice-breaking events took place after then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang lobbied the central authorities. The pan-democrats’ snubbing of these friendly gestures made Sir Bow-Tie unpopular among the Beijing officials, but it seems the new Chinese leadership (and, to the extent anyone asks for its opinion, the newish Hong Kong administration of CY Leung) are going to try again anyway.
This could be because the old approach – pretending the pro-dems and their 60% share of the popular vote don’t exist – so obviously doesn’t work that the Liaison Office feels it has no choice. (Divisions and sheer willfulness within the patriot-tycoon-Leung coalition may also be driving Zhang and his people to something, anything, different.) It could be because the Beijing officials are becoming more subtle and crafty and think a charm offensive will win over local hearts and minds. It could be that the Occupy Central concept, with its visible if hardly earth-shattering momentum, is spooking them even more than we thought. And, of course, all these explanations (and others) could be true.
Pride of place must go to Occupy Central. We know the Liaison Office has been orchestrating a broad-based United Front campaign to demonize the movement. (As if to labour the point, today’s China Daily insists it hasn’t been.) For every innocent member of the public who believes the scare stories of bloodshed and economic ruin, several more seem bemused and others probably impressed that Professor Benny Tai’s threat of civil disobedience deserves such flattering attention from the cadres and their contrived collection of loyalist and pro-establishment lackeys. (Listeners to RTHK Radio 3 this morning were treated to the Liberal Party’s usually ladylike Selina Chow whining about how the protestors should occupy the government palace at Tamar instead. It is hard to distinguish who is more desperate: Beijing with its horror of Occupy Central, or the comrades/shoe-shiners with their fear of not toeing the line.)
Tactical lunch advice for the pro-dems: resist the temptation to blow it and do the drearily predictable – shouting slogans, waving placards or bleating the obvious about universal suffrage. Just turn up (neatly dressed, of course), act respectable, speak only if spoken to, and otherwise… smile knowingly at Mr Zhang and colleagues. You have been invited because you are rattling them.