A Milder Tone to Hong Kong Seen in Xi Jinping’s Meeting With Hong Kong Tycoons

September 25, 2014 Updated: September 25, 2014

Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping met with a delegation of Hong Kong business tycoons recently, as thousands of students continued their protests in Hong Kong’s streets, part of an attempt to force Beijing to allow universal suffrage in the next chief executive election.

The discussion between Xi and the businessmen seemed aimed at firming up the status quo and Beijing’s control over the city-state, though the overall tone of his remarks appeared to be softer and less confrontational than that of his colleague Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese regime’s rubber-stamp legislature, who has played an outsize role in Hong Kong affairs.

The business leaders were brought to the capital by Tung Chee-hwa, a Party figure and politician who became the first chief executive of Hong Kong when it was handed over to the People’s Republic of China by the United Kingdom in 1997.

A total of 70 industry leaders traveled for the confab on Sept. 22, including billionaires Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-Kee, Henry Cheng, Robert Kuok, and Peter Woo, all heads of business conglomerates of one kind or another in Hong Kong. Representatives from the six biggest commercial associations also went along.

In the remarks officially reported in the state press, Xi Jinping said that the Chinese authorities will firmly adhere to the policy of “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law, “fully supporting the democratic development in Hong Kong while maintaining the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”

The Basic Law is effectively Hong Kong’s Constitution, though recently Beijing issued a white paper seeking to assert that the consent of the Chinese Communist Party is the source of authority of the Basic Law, and that Hong Kong is in nowise sovereign. This paper emanated from the State Council Information Office, also known as the Office for Foreign Propaganda, whose authority falls under the purview of Liu Yunshan, the chief of ideology and propaganda, who is aligned factionally with former Party leader Jiang Zemin.

According to Xinhua, Xi said in the meeting: “Under socialism in China, if there’s an issue, let’s talk about it. We should talk about things concerning all of us.” He added: “Finding the largest common denominator for the desire and needs of the public is the foundation of democracy.” Xinhua sought to give these gnomic remarks a glowing spin, with an opinion piece titled “Why did Xi Jinping say ‘If there’s an issue, let’s talk’?”

The idea behind the comments, Xinhua sought to argue, was that the “let’s talk” remark meant that discussions about democracy should continue to take place at a “political level, social level, and grass-roots level.” The article went into some depth in laying out the various official mechanisms that could serve as communication channels with Hong Kong.

The “Let’s talk” ethos seems to strike a contrast to the rhetoric of Zhang Dejiang, who made his own statement on Sept. 16 while meeting with representatives from the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.

Zhang said that the decision by the National People’s Congress—that is, the decision that candidates for the office of the chief executive of Hong Kong must be selected by a two-thirds majority of a council of elites that is controlled by Beijing—is “untouchable,” and that if the decision was not accepted by Hong Kong’s legislative assembly, then the city-state itself would “shoulder the historical responsibility,” according to the Oriental Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper.

Zhang Dejiang is another ally of former Party leader Jiang Zemin, whose influence across the Communist Party and governing apparatus Xi Jinping has for the last almost two years been working to reduce and degrade, most prominently through the purging of powerful Party heavyweights like Zhou Yongkang, former security boss, and Xu Caihou, former second-in-command of the military.

While the differences between Xi and Zhang’s positions may seem to be rhetorical, there is indeed a substantive divergence, according to Lau Siu Kai, vice president of the National Research Council of Hong Kong and Macao, and a former top adviser to the Central Policy Unit in the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative region.

“A lot of people thought that in the meeting, Xi Jinping would reiterate Party Central’s position on Hong Kong, and express hope that Hong Kong society would support it at every level, and that the Hong Kong Legislative Assembly would pass it,” Lau said.

“But in the meeting, Xi Jinping didn’t say those things,” he added, in the interview with Peng Pai, a new media company funded by the Chinese state.

While other Chinese officials were focused on the National People’s Congress decision, Xi was “looking at the development issues under the one country-two system from a higher and longer perspective,” Lau said.

Alan Leong, leader of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy political party, did not share Lau’s guarded optimism.

“What Xi said basically means that the Chinese authorities will still appoint a leader for Hong Kong,” Leong said in an interview with Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper. “Hong Kong people can now either kowtow and give up, or fight back in protest.”

With research by Frank Fang.