Hong Kong steps up security as Beijing’s man comes to call

Zhang Dejiang’s visit is first by a Chinese official since pro-democracy protests in 2014

Pro-democracy activists carry pictures of the visiting chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang, along with detained Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaob and his wife Liu Xia, in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photograph: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Pro-democracy activists carry pictures of the visiting chairman of the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang, along with detained Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaob and his wife Liu Xia, in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photograph: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

 

A giant banner calling for Hong Kong democracy was pulled from a mountainside, a photographer’s towel in contentious pro-democracy yellow was confiscated and paving stones were glued down tight as Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong, Zhang Dejiang, visited the territory.

The three-day visit is the first to the territory since the Occupy pro-democracy protests of 2014, and Mr Zhang, who is head of the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office as well as chairman of the National People’s Congress standing committee, has struck a conciliatory tone.

“I will listen to the chief executive and the government of the Special Administrative Region about their work, and to all sectors of society about what suggestions and requirements they have about implementing the principles of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong,” he told reporters at Hong Kong airport.

He will meet with more moderate pro-democracy legislators during his visit as Beijing tries to cool the powder keg that is Hong Kong and avoid alienating those in the centre by too much intransigence.

Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy, including a limited form of democracy, under the Basic Law introduced when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

However, recent events such as the detention by Chinese police of Hong Kong booksellers critical of China, and demonstrations by radical “localist” groups, combined with the ongoing political uncertainty since the pro-democracy protests of 2014, have seen Beijing tighten the screws on the freewheeling financial hub.

One of Mr Zhang’s first remarks on arrival has been to express support for Leung Chun-ying, the territory’s pro-Beijing chief executive who has been the target of so much of the anger of protesters in Hong Kong, but has weathered all storms so far.

He said Beijing was “satisfied with the work of the chief executive and of the SAR government” and said Mr Leung had received the “full endorsement” of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during his annual duty visit to the capital in December.

Security crackdown

Despite the elaborate security measures, 50 members of the League of Social Democrats broke through a police cordon near Government House, and were quickly surrounded by more than 100 police, the South China Morning Post reported.

Security has been intense. As well as gluing down the paving slabs to stop protesters ripping them up to use as projectiles, a banner reading “I want universal suffrage” was taken down from Beacon Hill and journalists covering the visit have had their umbrellas confiscated – umbrellas were the symbol of the pro-democracy movement in 2014.

Earlier this week, a man from Hong Kong was arrested across the border in Shenzhen for trying to buy a drone which officials said was going to be used to interfere with the visit.

Since the collapse of the Umbrella or Occupy protests of 2014, the pro-democracy movement has fallen into a number of factions, but a smaller group of activists are seeking independence from China, something Beijing has said it will never tolerate and which many in Hong Kong believe would threaten the territory’s economic future, which is entwined with China’s.