China’s Xi Jinping administration, with its tougher stance on external and internal relations, is assuming greater control over Hong Kong’s affairs through the China Liaison Office, the mainland’s representative in the territory, setting the political agenda often without even consulting the city’s own leadership.
The liaison office is a hydra-headed organization that manages the activities of the United Front to unify allies, neutralize independents and isolate enemies. It liaises with the PLA garrison stationed in the territory, guides mainland and local business houses on advertising placements, functional constituency voting and donating to United Front work. It links with Beijing’s foreign affairs commissioner’s office on Taiwan policy and sternly warns the UK and US governments not to interfere in the affairs of the Special Administrative Region.
Director Zhang walks about
The growing interference was demonstrated last month when Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went to the UK on vacation. Zhang Xiaoming, the liaison office director, decided to visit Sheung Shui, a township in the New Territories, with no representative from the Hong Kong government in attendance. That was highly unusual and symbolically traumatic. Director Zhang was divining for himself the “actual situation” of parallel goods traders, impact of two-way permit holders and general tourist traffic.
The Liaison Office later posted news and pictures of Zhang’s walkabout on its website as a routine matter. The message to the Hong Kong government was unambiguous – apparatchiks are not obliged to notify the local authorities of their activities. Their mandate derives directly from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
A hint of this came in 2008, when Cao Erbo, the liaison office’s then-head of research, published an article in Study Times, arguing for a parallel, Communist-led shadow government for the Hong Kong SAR. Some version of that seems to be in place as almost all Hong Kong government ministers are receiving ample unsolicited guidance which they make a show of taking seriously. They are also regularly summoned to liaison office workshops in Shenzhen.
The office owes no accountability to the people of Hong Kong. The city’s worst-kept secret is the growing United Front infiltration and political manipulation under the supervision of the liaison office, which for most of its existence was hidden in the depths of the Xinhua News Agency, the de facto consulate of the People’s Republic of China during the colonial period.
The office emerged from the shadows after the 1997 handover, relocating in 2000 to its own tower in Hong Kong’s Western district, defended by surveillance cameras and ringed by mobile barbed wire barriers. It functioned initially as the discreet back-seat driver for the post-1997 administrations. Now it is increasingly moving into the open.
This turn of the game is all the more surprising as CY Leung has gone out of his way to consult the liaison office on all key appointments and policy initiatives. He has paid a very high price personally as the least popular leader of Hong Kong since 1997, precisely for serving as a willing tool of Beijing.
Perhaps the liaison office feels confident enough, having systematically placed its cadres and collaborators in the chief executive’s office, cabinet, legislative council, universities, chambers of commerce and public bodies, that it can express-chisel Hong Kong into the mainland mould way before 2047. It is a hardworking Chinese Communist Party enforcer.
CY Leung chastises Global Times
The testy public censure by Leung of Global Times, the English language tabloid and national propaganda mouthpiece, betrays the deep frustration felt by the chief executive and his government against the relentless meddling of the China Liaison Office.
In a striking departure from protocol, Leung publicly chastised Global Times for pitting the 800,000 Hong Kong citizens who voted in the mock referendum on ways to elect the next chief executive in 2017 against the 1.3 billion comrades across the border. He said he felt it unnecessary, unhelpful and misguided.
Leung clarified that the public voting exercise organized by Occupy Central – the citizens’ movement seeking “true democracy” is not illegal and that the mock referendum voters would face no criminal prosecution.
White Paper jolt
The White Paper Beijing issued on June 10 alarmed Hong Kong citizens and added urgency to the huge public rally of the July 1 anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. In denying that the White Paper was rushed to counter the mock Occupy Central referendum, the Liaison Office said the document took a year to draft – apparently without reference to the chief executive. Hong Kong citizens assumed it to be the work of Leung’s administration and hold him responsible for its offensive tone and description of judges as agents of the state.
The White Paper spelled out in blunt language the subordination of all earlier pledges of “One country, two systems,” “high degree of autonomy” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” to the whims of the Communist Party through its administrative machinery in Beijing.
The White Paper also projected the paranoia of the CCP about keeping all the levers of power in the firm hands of “patriots.” The term has no legal definition and the party faithful stop short of listing unquestioning loyalty to the CCP, which is what most Hong Kong citizens suspect they really mean.
Anson Chan, chief secretary in the two Hong Kong administrations on either side of 1997, articulates the SAR’s concerns well: “Unlike any other Chinese city and province, we have the rule of law. We have the protection of basic human rights. We have regard for human dignity. We are an open, pluralistic society. These are our strengths. And Hong Kong people will fight to the end to preserve these core values.”
The Basic Law, taken at face value as the SAR’s mini-constitution till 2047, imposes no requirement on the chief executive, ministers or judges to be “patriotic.” Beijing’s White Paper makes clear that the CCP reserves the sole right to interpret, add to and take away from the Basic Law as it sees fit.
Unify, neutralize, isolate
Appointment to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is a favored way to round up persons of influence in the community and bung them into the party’s political silos. Media owners, academics, tycoons, religious leaders and clan association bosses have been thus invested with loyalty obligations and safely removed from joining the grassroots clamor for “true democracy.”
In Hong Kong the principal party “enemies” targeted are Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party; all of the pan democrats; Anson Chan; Cardinal Joseph Zen and of course Jimmy Lai, publisher of the avowedly anti-communist Apple Daily and Next magazine.
Right to rule?
South China Morning Post business columnist Jake van der Kamp, having joined the July 1 rally in the blazing sun and drenching shower for seven hours, ended his Sunday piece posing this question: “If government does not rule with the consent of the governed, by what authority does it rule at all?” How about state terror as effective authority?