Artist, propagandist, urban planning enthusiast, traditional Chinese medicine student — Zheng Yanxiong (鄭雁雄) does not fit the usual mold of a top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) security agent.
Zheng’s eclectic background suggests someone who might bring a broad approach to running the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the powerful and secretive agency that China created to implement a new security legislation in the former British colony.
The office is designed to “oversee and provide guidance” to Hong Kong authorities and is accountable to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government.
Illustration: Mountain People
The legislation gives Zheng, 57, broad authority to gather intelligence, select “complex” cases for prosecution in mainland Chinese courts and regulate foreign media outlets.
That could become more important as US journalists in Hong Kong become potential targets for Beijing’s retaliation in the conflict with Washington.
Zheng has played the role of an enforcer on the global stage before, helping to quiet a 2011 uprising against local CCP leaders in the fishing village of Wukan, 120km east of Hong Kong in Guangdong Province.
During that episode, he demonstrated a distaste for the foreign media commonly expressed by party officials.
“If the foreign media could be trusted, then sows could climb trees,” Zheng said at the time, though he also pointed out that some foreign media outlets were objective and could help bring the authorities’ attention to unknown issues.
The security legislation makes Zheng one of Hong Kong’s most important officials alongside Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) and Hong Kong Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government Director Luo Huining (駱惠寧).
Authorities have already used its prohibitions against secessionism and collusion with foreign powers to bar democracy activists from seeking office and arrest four students over posts online allegedly calling for a “Republic of Hong Kong.”
The decision to arrest activists over social media posts — rather than waiting for them to act on their views — points to a more preventative approach to identifying and monitoring perceived troublemakers, and using the new legislation to pressure them.
It is the sort of strategy Zheng mused about in a 2014 book after studying urban planning in Australia.
“What if we could manage the transparency? When specialized agencies are equipped with the most advanced technologies, and have a thorough grasp of online information and public opinions, as well as a clear understanding of criminals’ each and every move, will we still be so passive?” Zheng wrote.
The legislation gives authorities the power to proactively quash pockets of dissent similar to their peers on the Chinese mainland, where surveillance, censorship and extrajudicial detentions make it much harder for any opposition to organize.
Authorities in Hong Kong have already moved to ban political activities in schools and gain a tighter grip over what is being taught to the next generation.
“China’s model of social governance and social management has been very focused on prevention of conflict and unrest,” said Sheena Greitens, an associate professor and expert in authoritarian politics at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s likely that Beijing is hoping that the office in Hong Kong will shift officials there toward using some of the more preventive approaches we’ve seen deployed in mainland China.”
Chinese officials acknowledged their goal was to preempt acts of subversion and secession after handing down the legislation that created Zheng’s office.
“Once the offense is accomplished, the nation is already split or the state is already subverted — how can you still apply the law?” Shen Chunyao (沈春耀), the head of the Chinese National People’s Congress Legislative Affairs Commission, asked at a news conference last month.
The details of Zheng’s strategy will likely remain a secret, with Lam telling reporters on July 7 that a news release on the national security commission’s first meeting would be the last of its kind — the meetings were too sensitive.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing did not reply to request for an interview with Zheng and calls to the office went unanswered.
Attempts to contact Zheng at the Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong — where his agency set up a temporary office overlooking the frequent protest gathering spot of Victoria Park — were unsuccessful.
Two armed immigration officers refused to provide journalists information on how to contact the office, and the four additional plainclothes security personnel doubled to eight when approached by a reporter.
“We will not encroach on any person or organization’s legal rights,” Zheng said in a July 8 speech marking the office’s opening.
He vowed to strengthen coordination with other mainland Chinese entities in Hong Kong including the Liaison Office and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, whose local garrison is reported to have about 6,000 personnel.
“This is a very prominent role, but at the same time it’s a role where he will have to answer to some very senior people. He proved his tough side in Wukan, and he has many other characteristics such as his Cantonese and the party background which make him fit for the role,” said Dali Yang (楊大利), a University of Chicago political science professor specializing in China.
Raised in a poor village in Guangdong, Zheng is familiar with Cantonese, which is also spoken in Hong Kong.
He was accepted at 16 to study at the Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine. He cycled through various political jobs, including a stint at the South China bureau of the CCP’s People’s Daily newspaper. Along the way, he refined an interest in Chinese art and literature, publishing dozens of essays on calligraphy, painting and film, sometimes under a pen name.
Zheng had two portraits featured at a Guangzhou art exhibition in 2016: Zheng Zhengqiu (鄭正秋), a founding father of Chinese cinema, and Lu Xun (魯迅), an early 20th century writer dubbed by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) as “the saint of modern China.”
Tian Feilong (田飛龍), an associate law professor at Beihang University in Beijing, said Zheng Yanxiong’s background could help him build a positive image of the office.
“There is a need to alleviate Hong Kong people’s fear for the office and for the National Security Law,” Tian said.
Zheng has proved himself to be a reliable hardliner after being appointed CCP secretary in Shanwei, which oversees Wukan. There, he oversaw a crackdown on groups of locals who had organized themselves to fight the sale of village land.
Residents were detained, including one who later died in custody, sparking a confrontation between villagers and local police that drew global media attention. Provincial authorities intervened and allowed a landmark election.
In a speech, Zheng said the protesters’ methods were “unreasonable and the process was out of control,” even though he acknowledged that their demands were “mostly reasonable.”
He accused villagers of unnecessarily escalating the dispute and giving the foreign media “artillery” to attack the CCP.
After the global attention on Wukan faded, the village’s newly elected leaders struggled to convince provincial officials to return the land and were eventually removed and detained.
Zheng was promoted to run the day-to-day operations of Guangdong’s CCP committee, the most powerful body in the country’s most-populous province.
“He is loyal, and he does what the top asked to be done without hesitation and without mercy, which seems a very good qualification for the job,” said Steve Tsang (曾銳生), director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. “The intention is to make sure that the people in Hong Kong would be so sufficiently terrified that they’re not going to even think about resisting.”
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