Hong Kong has launched one of its largest security operations coinciding with the arrival of a high-ranking Chinese politician on a rare visit.
The three-day visit by Zhang Dejiang, who is in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, is the first by such a senior official since the 2014 Occupy democracy protests and comes amid growing concerns that China is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous territory.
About 6,000 police officers have been deployed throughout the city, including counterterrorism and special forces, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.
A ban on drones was put in place and the government also began glueing down pavement bricks in an attempt to stop protesters from digging them up and using them as projectiles.
Zhang, who is the chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, will meet a group of veteran pro-democracy politicians, a rare move observers say is designed to defuse frustrations.
Emily Lau, pro-democracy politician who is one of the 10 chosen legislators, says the mood in Hong Kong is dark and angry because many feel that the government will not listen to them.
“We have a huge problem facing Hong Kong, and all they know is to glue the bricks. It’s so symbolic and pathetic,” she told Al Jazeera.
Zhang, 69, arrived just before noon at Hong Kong airport where he was met by Leung Chun-ying, the city leader, and a brass band.
In a short speech on the tarmac, he said that he brought a “caring heart” from the Chinese central government as well as “hearty greetings and good wishes” from China’s President Xi Jinping.
Zhang said he would listen to the public’s “suggestions and demands” over how the city is governed.
While Zhang is ostensibly visiting to speak at an economic conference on Wednesday, the trip is widely seen as a bid to guage the political climate which has fostered a fledgling independence movement.
But pro-democracy groups say they will stage protests during the visit regardless.
Starry Lee, a pro-Beijing legislator, says while Zhang’s visit shows China’s commitment to more communication, the issue of Hong Kong’s independence should not be on the agenda.
“I don’t think he [Zhang] will address this so-called social division or exremists calling for independence – that is not the main issue he’s coming for,” she said.
Independence has become an increasingly mainstream subject in Hong Kong, with some activists calling for an outright breakaway from China, a move some politicians say would imperil Hong Kong’s economic and political future.
“[We] are facing a very great threat from China: Our culture, our language, our people … we are dying!” said Chan Ho-tin, the head of the newly formed National party, expected to contest legislative elections in September.
New political party
Joshua Wong, another prominent young activist who launched a new political party called Demosisto this year, has not ruled out taking an independence line in upcoming campaigns.
Hong Kong enjoys far greater freedoms compared with the mainland, but there has been growing anxiety in recent years about the influence of China on the territory that was under British control until 1997.
Zhang was behind the controversial electoral system changes that became the catalyst for the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which saw three main Hong Kong thoroughfares occupied by protesters for more than two and a half months.