One of China’s most powerful officials tells Hong Kong he brings a “caring heart”, in a conciliatory start to a visit today that has stirred anger in a city that resents Beijing’s tightening grip.
The three-day trip by Zhang Dejiang, who chairs China’s communist-controlled legislature, is the first by such a senior official in four years and comes as concerns grow that Hong Kong’s long-cherished freedoms are under threat.
While Zhang is ostensibly visiting to speak at an economic conference tomorrow, the trip is widely seen as a bid to take the temperature in an increasingly divided city with a fledgling independence movement.
The visit has infuriated opponents, critical of a massive security operation that includes barricading protesters into designated areas out of Zhang’s sight.
Tomorrow will see several pro-democracy groups rally, with some activists saying they will try to get close to Zhang.
Zhang arrived just before noon at the Hong Kong airport where he was met by CY Leung and a brass band.
In a short speech on the tarmac he said he brought a “caring heart” from the Chinese central government as well as “hearty greetings and good wishes” from China’s President Xi Jinping.
He noted there was “very nice weather” in both Beijing and Hong Kong, and said he would look at the work of the Hong Kong government and the changes in the lives of city residents.
Zhang, a member of the politburo standing committee, said he would listen to the public’s “suggestions and demands” over how the city is governed.
He will meet with a group of veteran pro-democracy lawmakers tomorrow evening, a rare move observers say is designed to defuse frustrations over stalled political reform.
“It is really time for him to meet with non-establishment legislators… to hear our analysis of how Hong Kong ended up where we are today, and what are the ways forward,” Civic Party lawmaker Alan Leong, who is part of the invited group, told AFP.
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However, only four pro-democracy legislators will meet with Zhang, and protest groups voiced anger they were being kept away from the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre where he will speak.
“Zhang Dejiang is coming here to understand the situation in Hong Kong but now his eyesight will be completely blocked,” said Sham Tsz-kit of Civil Human Rights Front.
Layers of large, water-filled plastic barricades cordoned off roads in the area and paving stones have been glued down to prevent protesters using them as missiles.
That comes after demonstrators levered up bricks during running battles with police in February.
Police are even patrolling Lion Rock, where pro-democracy protests banners have regularly been unfurled.
However, activists still managed to hang a banner calling for universal suffrage on a nearby hillside this morning.
Another, demanding the “end of Communist Party dictatorship” was hung on a highway from the airport into the city.
A small group of pro-democracy protesters including student leader Joshua Wong chanted and held up signs calling for universal suffrage and self-determination near Zhang’s hotel as he arrived.
One tried to breach the barricade and was tackled to the ground by police.
There was also a rival group of pro-China demonstrators, who waved national flags.
Hongkonger Jimmy Tso said he had come to “show his support for Mr Zhang”.
The visit is expected to help Beijing gauge whethe CY Leung should stand for another term – his current stint ends in March 2017.