26 August 2019
A statue of Goddess of Democracy sits outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong. With its growing meddling in the city's affairs, the office is a target for pro-democracy protesters. Photo: HKEJ
A statue of Goddess of Democracy sits outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong. With its growing meddling in the city's affairs, the office is a target for pro-democracy protesters. Photo: HKEJ

Why Liaison Office is HK’s de facto government

China has three official bodies in Hong Kong: Central Government Liaison Office, Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Of these, the Liaison Office is the most active while the other two largely keep a low profile.

Officially called ‘Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’, the state organ effectively serves as a reminder to Hong Kong about Beijing’s ultimate control over the territory.

Originally, the office was set up to facilitate liaison and communication with the central government on matters such as economic and cultural cooperation, and to convey Hong Kong people’s thoughts and views to Beijing authorities. But looking at it now, one cannot miss the fact that its agenda has become much broader. 

The office is often accused by the pan-democratic camp of abusing its authority and interfering in Hong Kong’s local affairs. Some critics even go so far as to say that the SAR government is merely a puppet and that it is the Beijing’s “imperial envoys” who are wielding power from behind the veil.

The string-pulling has become more apparent since Leung Chun-ying took over as Hong Kong’s chief executive more than two years ago.

Leung paid a visit to the Liaison Office the day following his election victory in March 2012, a move observers believe was aimed at offering thanks to the mainland officials for supporting his election campaign. The Liaison Office moved to the center stage during the election as a major coordinator, pushing members of the 1200-strong nomination committee to vote for Leung rather than for his chief rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen.

The office’s role also loomed large in the territory’s other elections to choose lawmakers and district council members. Paul Tse Wai-chun, a pro-Beijing legislative councilor who represents the Kowloon East constituency, once noted during a television interview that without crucial support from the Liaison Office – like community networking to canvass for votes – he could not have won the LegCo seat.

When it comes to Hong Kong’s day-to-day governance, the office is also “helpful” in providing some guidance.

As shown on its website, the Liaison Office has a total of 24 departments and divisions with duties ranging from policy studies, propaganda, community liaison, economic cooperation, Taiwan affairs, social works, educational and cultural affairs, legal counseling, police liaison and youth outreach programs.

Virtually every department and bureau within the Hong Kong government can find its counterpart body in the Liaison Office. What’s the point in having so many specific divisions and task forces if the Liaison Office had no aim of meddling with the local government’s policies and decision-making?

One should also note that the office has three district teams based in the Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and New Territories.

One of the most well-known cadres from the office is Hao Tiechuan (郝鐵川), former director of the propaganda department, who liked to write hawkish commentaries in local pro-establishment newspapers. Hao made headlines in 2012 when he said in public that national education was aimed at making students accept and implement the central government’s ideology.

Cao Erbao (曹二寶), chief of the office’s comprehensive affairs working group, noted in an essay in 2008 that the office should act as Hong Kong’s “second team of administrators”. Also, media reports revealed in 2012 how Cao lashed out at Gabriel Matthew Leung, then director of the chief executive’s office, during a private meeting.

The reason for the rebuke: the Hong Kong official’s failure to stop a LegCo motion, under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance, to look into Leung Chun-ying’s suspected conflict of interest when he was sitting in a panel to select the master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Unlike his relatively discreet predecessors, the Liaison Office’s current director Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明) doesn’t mind being seen often on the public stage. Since he assumed the post, Zhang has paid numerous visits to grassroots families in Sham Shui Po and Kwun Tong.

In June this year, Zhang also went to supermarkets, drug stores and district councils in Sheung Shui and Lo Wu in northern New Territories in the wake of public resentment over parallel-goods traders. Following the initiative, which should actually have been taken by Leung Chun-ying, local netizens mocked Zhang as being Hong Kong’s Communist Party chief.

Zhang also sparked uproar in the pan-democratic camp due to these reported remarks: “The fact that pro-democracy members are alive in Hong Kong shows the central government’s great tolerance.” The official, however, said later that his comments were twisted by the media.

There are altogether nine deputy directors at the Liaison Office and it seems that one of their major daily rituals is attending all sorts of events and ceremonies in the city as presiding VIP guests.

The office’s website shows that deputy directors have attended roughly 20 functions last month, including inaugurations, award presentations, anniversary galas, fundraising parties, National Day receptions and activities of China-invested firms in the city.

Normally, top officials from the Hong Kong government are also invited to attend these events, but sometimes they are no more than wallflowers. People only chase senior brass from the Liaison Office because only they represent “Ah Yeah (grandfather 阿爺)”, the Cantonese idiom that refers to one’s true master.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Colonial Hong Kong flags are seen outside China’s Liaison Office during a protest. Photo: VOA

Liaison Office director Zhang Xiaoming (R) visited several supermarkets and drug stores in Sheung Shui and Lo Wu this June. Critics said the official was acting as Hong Kong’s real boss. Photo: Liaison Office website

Zhang (second from right) talks to people at a restaurant in Sheung Shui. Photo: Liaison Office website

EJ Insight writer

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