Zhang Dejiang kicked off his visit in Hong Kong yesterday (May 17), under the protection of thousands of police officers and amid protests against Beijing’s heavy-handed rule over the semi-autonomous city.
Zhang, 69, is the third-ranked official in the Communist Party’s top decision-making body, after president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang. Head of the Party’s leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, he was behind Beijing’s 2014 decision to deny Hong Kong open elections. The unpopular ruling sparked the Umbrella Movement, which occupied major intersections in the city for months.
The way his visit has been described by Beijing should make Hong Kongers even more upset.
It was dubbed an “inspection tour” by Chinese state media, including official newswire Xinhua. That’s the first time the expression “inspection” or “inspect” has appeared in state media reports about Chinese leaders’ visits to Hong Kong. In the past, they were referred to as “visits,” while “inspection” was saved for tours of local governments in mainland China.
In other forms of government, “inspection” is generally reserved for military higher-ups who are examining their underlings, but Communist Party officials around the world have a long tradition of “inspecting” things, people, and locations that report to them.
Premier Li Keqiang “inspected” an online private bank in Shenzhen in January 2015; local governments in Jiangsu province were ordered to learn Xi Jinping’s talks after his “inspection” tours to the eastern coastal region in 2014; late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping “inspected” a state-owned steel company in Shanghai in 1984.
“Inspection” means “‘one country’ towering over ‘two systems,'” said Willy Lam, who analyzes Chinese and Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, referring to the agreement designed to give Hong Kong significant autonomy as the former British colony was handed over to Beijing in 1997. Lam said the word choice shows “the position of Hong Kong–and its value for the PRC in general–has declined in importance.”
An op-ed from pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Tai Kung Pao (link in Chinese) alleges that calling Zhang’s visit to Hong Kong an “inspection” is “as a matter of course, [and] perfectly justifiable” because it means a superior officer examining his subordinate’s work.
Zhang is the first state leader to visit Hong Kong since then president Hu Jintao in 2012. In the past few years, Hong Kong’s relations with China have only deteriorated.
Rather than spending much time interacting with Hong Kong citizens during his “inspection tour,” Zhang is in the city to attend today’s Belt and Road summit where he delivered a keynote speech on how Hong Kong could benefit as part of Xi’s economic and trade initiative. This morning around 100 protesters rallied against Zhang outside the meeting location.