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In a gesture that demonstrated Beijing’s authority, the seating arrangement for the annual meeting between the state leader overseeing Hong Kong and the city’s deputies to the national legislature was changed

for the first time since the 1997 handover.

National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang met the deputies in Beijing yesterday for the meeting, during which Zhang and Hong Kong’s 36-strong delegation led by Maria Tam Wai-chu were seated at one end of a room in the Great Hall of the People, as in previous years. But instead of having delegates lined up on two sides of the room, Zhang and Tam joined about 30 of them along with mainland officials in sitting around a large rectangular conference table, and the casual sofas they enjoyed in the past were substituted for chairs.

Some Hong Kong deputies appeared surprised arriving for the meeting at 9am. “Oh, this year we are sitting like this,” a deputy was heard murmuring to a colleague.

They sought to downplay the change however when asked if there was any political meaning behind it.

NPC Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a deputy since 1998, said: “I think this arrangement is the norm, because in the past it looked like we were foreign guests … but in fact, just like those from mainland provinces, we are here to do our job, and not to receive courteous treatment.

“I think this new arrangement is better because it is easier for me to take notes,” she added.

NPC deputy Ip Kwok-him confirmed it was the first time the arrangement had been changed since 1997, but joined fellow deputy Ma Fung-kwok in saying “there is nothing special about it”.

Ching Cheong, a veteran journalist and commentator on China, said there used to be a tacit understanding that Hong Kong held a slightly more significant position than provinces on the mainland.

“The latest seating arrangement signifies that Hong Kong no longer holds a special status from Beijing’s point of view. Instead it is now on the same level as mainland provinces,” he said.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s duty visit to the capital in December also saw state leaders’ remarks and pledges take a back seat to a seating change.

In their separate talks with Leung, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were seated at the head of a long table, with Leung placed at one side. It stood in stark contrast to previous protocol under which the chief executive would always sit side by side with state leaders on sofas, giving the impression of an equal footing.