Amid Top Beijing Official’s Visit — Hong Kong’s Yearning To Be Free Can Be Seen Everywhere

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.

HONG KONG: Hong Kong protesters angry at a visit by a top Beijing official shouted pro-democracy slogans on Wednesday (May 18) but were kept well away from a mission seen as an attempt to bridge the city’s growing political divide.

Zhang Dejiang (middle) and Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-yin (far left)

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 in semi-autonomous Hong Kong 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 Leung Chun-ying 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 Wednesday, 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.

Hongkongers speak Cantonese rather than the Mandarin dominant on the mainland, and there are concerns the language is being squeezed out.

Zhang will meet pro-democracy lawmakers on Wednesday 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 on the Wanchai district for his visit.

Roads around Zhang’s hotel and the convention centre hosting the economic conference 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 on Wednesday 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.

‘EXPRESSION LIMITED’

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.

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“I think more people are scared of the police,” said Alexandra Wong, 60, a retired accountant. “They do what they want.”

Hong Kong police were criticised for sometimes heavy-handed treatment of protesters during mass pro-democracy rallies that brought parts of the city to a standstill in 2014.

Police arrested seven members of the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats party on Tuesday 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.

Police patrol a security area where Chinese state leader Zhang Dejiang will reside and deliver a speech during his 3-day visit in Hong Kong, China, 16 May 2016

More than 6,000 police have been deployed around Hong Kong, a substantial segment of its police service. EPA photo

Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday 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”.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland, but there are concerns Beijing’s interference is growing.

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Giant democracy banner on Hong Kong hill ahead of China state leader visit

A giant banner calling for universal suffrage was swiftly removed from Hong Kong’s Beacon Hill. EPA photo

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Hong Kong activist and legislator Leung Kwok-hung (R), popularly known as "Long Hair", holds a placard calling for the release of Chinese human rights activi...

Paper money thrown at Hong Kong police lays scattered across their boots as they form a line to block protesters marching in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016

Paper money thrown at Hong Kong police lays scattered across their boots as they form a line to block protesters marching in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016 ©Richard A. Brooks (AFP)

A policeman walks past pro-China supporters in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016, during the second day of a visit by China's National People's Congress (NPC) Standi...

A policeman walks past pro-China supporters in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016, during the second day of a visit by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee Chairman Zhang Dejiang ©Dale De La Rey (AFP)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (L) walks past Zhang Dejiang (R), who chairs China's communist-controlled legislature, as they open the Belt and Ro...

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (L) walks past Zhang Dejiang (R), who chairs China’s communist-controlled legislature, as they open the Belt and Road Summit in Hong Kong on May 18, 2016 ©Isaac Lawrence (AFP)

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 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3596028/Hong-Kong-protests-China-official-visits.html

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