Who is Zheng Yanxiong, Beijing’s Pick to Tame Hong Kong?

A Cantonese-speaking, Guangdong-born politician will head the mainland's new security office in Hong Kong, but his hardline image and experience quashing rural unrest does not bode well for the city, observers say.
July 7, 2020, 7:55am
zheng yanxiong afp
This file photo taken on December 20, 2011 shows Zheng Yanxiong, then-Communist Party Secretary of Shanwei prefecture, speaking on television as villagers watch the broadcast in Wukan, Guandong province, where residents demanded the government take action over illegal land grabs and the death in custody of a local leader. MARK RALSTON / AFP

“Hardline.” “Forceful.” “Tough.”

These are just some of the words being used to describe the man chosen by China’s ruling Communist Party to head its powerful new security agency in Hong Kong.

In his new role, Zheng Yanxiong will oversee the implementation of a controversial national security law for Hong Kong, a bill that has drawn sharp criticism from observers, opponents, and rights groups. The law—ostensibly enacted to punish acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces with sentences ranging up to life in prison—is seen by many as an attempt by Beijing to quash dissent in the restive city, which was rocked by a months-long, sometimes-violent pro-democracy protest movement last year.

“A member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China’s Guangdong Provincial Committee, Zheng will lead the office for safeguarding national security of the central government in Hong Kong—finalizing law-enforcement mechanisms and fulfilling the central government’s ultimate responsibilities over national security matters in the city,” reads a story by the state-run Global Times celebrating Zheng’s credentials.

The story describes Zheng as “vastly experienced,” and notes that he is “known for his thought-provoking [sic] remarks,” citing as evidence an instance where he was said to have quipped, "We will see pigs fly before the foreign media can be trusted."

Starting out as a youth member of his local communist party league before quickly assuming the office of mayor, Zheng cemented his political career in his home province of Guangdong, where he rose through the ranks of the party—and developed a reputation for his hardline approach.

“His streamlined values, dedication to the ruling communist party, and willingness to prove himself has clearly paid off,” Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer and China expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, told VICE News.

“His is a very public and important role, being the face of such a powerful agency, so he has to be well-equipped at handling the media and have the right propaganda experience. It also doesn’t hurt that he speaks Cantonese. One can’t understand or navigate Hong Kong without knowing the dialect, and Zheng is fluent in it.”

The moment that arguably defines Zheng’s career came in 2011, when he oversaw the resolution of anti-corruption protests stemming from a local land dispute in the village of Wukan.

“Some residents accused the village committee of illegal land grabbing and staged protests,” the Global Times said in its story on Zheng’s appointment. “Zheng Yanxiong settled the disputes with local authorities, returning some disputed land to the Wukan villagers.”

Zheng’s early intercession in the dispute was indeed hailed as unorthodox, with villagers receiving rare concessions, though the Global Times fails to mention videos at the time showing an angry Zheng harshly criticising villagers for speaking to foreign reporters—hence the pithy quote about pigs flying.

The Global Times’ account also leaves out what happened in Wukan five years later, when villagers threatened to return to the streets saying their demands were still unmet. According to reports, their locally elected leader was arrested, police conducted pre-dawn raids, and riot officers launched a heavy-handed crackdown. Zheng, by that time, had graduated to the level of a provincial official.

“This incident is enough to understand why Zheng was picked among more senior party officials: he was hardline in his approach in dealing with the protesters and the media,” Lui said.

Now, with Zheng’s appointment to his new post in Hong Kong, the Wukan case has become a cause for concern among observers.

“It was predictable that the Beijing government would pick someone from Guangdong, which has a similar culture and language to ours,” said Hong Kong-based researcher Patrick Poon. “But Zheng’s experience in Wukan will definitely create concern in Hong Kong, with regard to similar crackdowns on protests and freedom of assembly. With so little information about the responsibilities of his position and the extremely ambiguous provisions in the national security law, we simply can't see any guarantee of protection of our freedom of expression and human rights.”

The controversial national security law that Zheng is tasked with enforcing came into effect mere minutes before the 23rd anniversary of the territory’s handover to China from British rule on July 1.

The law stipulated the creation of the body Zheng will now oversee—along with deputies Li Jiangzhou and Sun Qingye—giving Beijing free rein for the first time to carry out security operations in the city.

“Not much is currently known about the organization. But it is important to understand the whole structure of the security agency and who wields the most power,” Lui said. “I don’t believe it is Zheng Yanxiong because at the end of the day, he is just the face and the messenger. The real commander, working in the shadows, is still Luo Huining who was appointed national security advisor.

Luo was named in January as the head Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

Still, Lui is interested to see how Zheng will bring his own experience to the table.

“But he still only has experience in governing rural provinces as a second tier official,” Lui said. “I am interested to see how he will fare in leading bigger, more cosmopolitan demographics when he finds and establishes his grounding in Hong Kong.”

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, slammed Zheng’s appointment, comparing it to the party movements of another hardline politician, Chen Quanguo, who expanded police powers and party networks in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang.

“Chen Quanguo’s draconian laws and practices violated human rights on an industrial scale,” China Director Sophie Richardson told VICE News. “The appointment of hardline officials like Chen and now Zheng Yanxiong to implement a security law that Hong Kong people didn’t want and clearly have had no say in only shows how dishonest and malign Beijing’s intentions are.”

On Chinese social media—which, like traditional media, is heavily censored—Zheng’s appointment drew a flood of support and encouragement.

“This is the tough guy who will restore calm to Hong Kong and make it safe again,” one user wrote on the microblogging service Sina Weibo.

Another recalled Zheng’s tirade against foreign media back in 2011, saying “it is what is needed to control irresponsible news from circulating.”

On Twitter meanwhile, more popular with Chinese dissidents and those able to go the extra mile to circumvent China’s Great Firewall, the reaction to Zhang’s appointment has been more critical.

The Chinese dissident cartoonist Badiucao, who commands a strong Twitter following from his home in Australia, called Zheng a “tactless, ill-equipped, Beijing-endorsed politician who will not hesitate to react to situations using toughness and violence.”

“It is terrifying enough how fast the police moved in weaponizing the new security law to its advantage by silencing the public,” he told VICE News. “Zheng Yanxiong brings danger and will ruin Hong Kong.”

Claudia Mo, a former journalist and a leading politician in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, noted that Zheng “was not well known at all in Hong Kong before this.”

“He was presented as a hardliner and his past comments revive the once-archaic Chinese mentality of the ‘bamboo curtain’—in not wanting to deal with the outside world,” she said. “But most people here seem to think that it’s really the big boss in Beijing and not the security agents on the ground in Hong Kong that really matter.”