HONG KONG—An unassuming, bespectacled 67-year-old Chinese official who studied economics in North Korea and has been blamed for a violent crackdown on protesting Chinese villagers may determine the future of democracy in Hong Kong.
Zhang Dejiang, as chairman of China’s legislature and head of the Chinese Communist Party’s leading group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, oversaw Beijing’s decision on how direct elections in Hong Kong should be implemented in 2017. He likely also has a hand in how the situation—now at an impasse between the Hong Kong government and protesters demanding a civil nomination—plays out now.
In August, China’s national legislature announced that candidates running for Hong Kong’s top office must have the approval of at least half of a nominating committee that is so far stacked with representatives sympathetic to Beijing. That decision has set off a wave of protests that local officials have yet to contain. Beijing has repeated its stance that its decision is “unshakeable.” If any compromise were to be made, however, it would come through Zhang.
Zhang is one of China’s most powerful but little-known officials. He has been a foil to charismatic figures such as former minister of commerce Bo Xilai, who Zhang replaced when he was ejected from his position as party chief in Chonggqing. Zhang is considered to be a “grey party man even by Politburo standards,” according to Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. To critics, Zhang is an ultra-conservative best known for shutting down liberal media outlets in Guangdong province, suppressing information about the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, and opposing business owners joining the Chinese communist party.
Perhaps most worrying for Hong Kong demonstrators is that in 2005, Zhang was party secretary in Guangdong when police opened fire on farmers and fishermen protesting land seizures in the village of Dongzhou—marking the first time Chinese security forces had fired on civilians since Tiananmen in 1989. (Police have since also opened fire on Tibetan protesters.) Police killed between 10 and 20 villagers, some of whom attacked police with homemade bottle bombs used for stunning fish. (Some residents said closer to 40 people were killed, including bystanders.) When villagers in another Guangdong village, Taishi, petitioned to oust a corrupt village official, thugs pressured residents to back away from the measure, and in some cases beat up local activists and journalists.
But supporters see Zhang as energetic, decisive, and even somewhat reform-minded when it comes to rights and representation. After the 2005 Dongzhou incident, he began stressing that land acquisitions and development projects should not go forward until compensation deals with farmers and other residents have been sealed. He also said that China’s petition system—the process by which Chinese citizens issue formal complaints to the government—was “the democratic right of the people.”
As for Hong Kong, Zhang has offered comments that appear more lenient than those in Chinese state-run media. In July, Zhang reportedly said that some lawmakers from Hong Kong’s Democratic Party are patriotic to China—a hint that Democrats might eventually be allowed to run for Hong Kong’s top position. He also suggested that further reforms to the city’s election process after 2017 could be possible. According to lawmakers that attended a meeting with him in July, Zhang said that democracy in Hong Kong should evolve in a “gradual and orderly manner.”
Still, Zhang appears to have a certain amount of tone-deafness when it comes to Hong Kong: In September, he assured the public that the legislature had read public opinion in the semi-autonomous territory correctly. Zhang said Beijing’s policy was decided “very solemnly after listening to opinions from different sectors in Hong Kong.” Zhang told a trade delegation in Beijing, “The decision…has won the support and endorsement of the majority of Hong Kong people.” Two weeks later, tens of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets to protest that decision.