Hong Kong protesters angry at a visit by a top Beijing official shouted pro-democracy slogans today but were kept well away from a mission seen as an attempt to bridge the city’s growing political divide.
The three-day trip by Zhang Dejiang, who chairs China’s communist-controlled legislature, is the first by such a senior official for four years. It comes as concerns grow that freedoms are under threat here as Beijing tightens its grip.
Although Zhang’s trip is ostensibly for an economic conference, it is widely being seen as a conciliatory effort and a chance to gauge whether Beijing should back the city’s unpopular leader CY Leung to stand for a second term.
Frustration over lack of political reform has sparked a fledgling independence movement, condemned by authorities in both Hong Kong and mainland China.
During a speech at the conference on China’s “One Belt, One Road” international trade and investment plan today, Zhang urged Hong Kong to play a bigger role in China’s national development strategy.
“I hope that Hong Kong, with a broader mind and vision, will fully seize the major opportunities of Belt and Road,” he said.
He emphasised the shared Cantonese culture of southern China and Hong Kong, an apparent attempt to ease fears Beijing is trying to erode the city’s separate identity.
Zhang will meet pro-democracy lawmakers this evening in a rare move, after promising to listen to political demands from across society.
But opponents have criticised Zhang for what they called “tokenistic” diplomacy and slammed Hong Kong authorities for imposing a security lockdown in Wanchai for his visit.
Roads around Zhang’s hotel and the Convention & Exhibition Centre have been cordoned off with huge water-filled barricades and protesters funnelled into designated areas, out of sight.
Around 100 of them marched to one of the areas this morning before the conference started, vastly outnumbered by police – thousands of whom have been mobilised to protect Zhang.
They called for the “end of dictatorship”, fully free elections, and the release of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese Nobel peace laureate jailed on the mainland, as well as the resignation of city leader Leung.
“Our requests are very clear, we do not welcome Zhang,” said John Leung, 30, of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
Rival groups of pro-China demonstrators waved national flags and heated shouting matches ensued between the two sides.
“Despite all, we are Chinese. Every policy and every government has its own imperfections,” said one pro-China protester who gave her name as Ms. Yuan.
Demonstrators said they expected higher numbers for an evening rally. Some said fear of a backlash had kept numbers down in the morning.
“I think more people are scared of the police,” said Alexandra Wong, 60, a retired accountant. “They do what they want.”
Police arrested seven members of the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats party yesterday for unfurling protest banners on hills and flyovers.
They also wrestled a leading pro-democracy activist to the ground near Zhang’s hotel as he tried to breach a barrier.
Human Rights Watch said today that authorities had “sharply limited” the public’s opportunities to voice criticism of Zhang’s visit.
It also said Hong Kong officials should challenge Zhang “to make concrete commitments to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy on human rights and democratic rule”.