20 January 2020
Who's the boss? Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (2nd from left) or Zhang Xiaoming (2nd from right), head of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong? Photo: HKEJ
Who's the boss? Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (2nd from left) or Zhang Xiaoming (2nd from right), head of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong? Photo: HKEJ

Why Hong Kong’s ‘loyalists’ are no longer loyal

One of the so-called loyalist camp’s outstanding characteristics is its crumbling loyalty to the government that it is supposed to be supporting.

The mainland’s liaison office is doing its best to stop further disintegration among the “loyalists” but is inadvertently adding to the problem.

Hong Kong’s mainstream media is full of stories about splits in the democratic camp, most of which are perfectly true, but a strange veil of silence descends over the peculiar situation of the anti-democrats, who have a better history of hiding their divisions.

In part, this is because in the pre-Leung Chun-ying era, when the government went out of its way to keep all the “loyalists” happy, some were given jobs, others showered with honours and given face by way of invitations to countless meetings and events.

Standing behind the Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen administrations in those days was a rather less assertive liaison office that twisted arms but felt that a low profile was the best way to keep control.

Low profile has given way to a very high profile, as the Leung administration blunders in all directions and the chief executive seems to be on a mission to alienate everyone but his closest allies.

This was graphically illustrated in the wake of the constitutional reform vote in the Legislative Council, when anti-democrat legislators did not even think of going to the chief executive to explain their blunder but headed straight for Western district, where mainland officials dealt with them.

The highly status-conscious members of the “loyalist” camp are also well aware of the way that the liaison office treats the chief executive, generally insisting that he go to their office to see them, a clear indicator of who wields the real power.

And now liaison office officials have broken their traditional public silence with interviews and speeches setting down the new line.

They almost certainly did not set out to weaken the Hong Kong administration, but this is the outcome.

And it has allowed members of the anti-democracy camp to openly criticize Mr. Leung, because they understand his weakness.

James Tien Pei-chun, the Liberal Party leader and once a pillar of the pro-government nexus, now openly mocks the chief executive.

His criticism is brushed aside as that of a “naughty boy”, but it should not be forgotten that he has acute political antennae and was quick to turn on the government when he realized that the proposed anti-subversion legislation would meet enormous public resistance.

His change of stance played a key role in scuppering that law.

Now we see the core loyalists from the clandestine Communist Party emerging in public to express their misgivings.

The crucial figure here is Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, president of Legco but more importantly a veteran of the leftist camp.

He has aired his views on Hong Kong’s growing lack of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula.

This came after Mr. Leung sacked Mr. Tsang’s brother, Tsang Tak-sing, from his post as home affairs secretary and added insult to injury by getting his minions to spread tales of Tak-sing’s incompetence.

Clearly, personal considerations are at play here alongside political ones.

However there is a deeper source of discontent among the genuine leftists, who feel that while the former colonial stooges have been rewarded for being turncoats, the veterans on the left have been taken for granted and ignored.

Mr. Leung’s predecessors at least made an effort to mollify them; he makes little effort.

Elsewhere in the alleged loyalist camp are characters such as Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, whose loyalty mainly extends to her own aggressive ambitions.

Even though she sits in CY’s cabinet, she feels free to criticize the government if it suits her purposes.

Then there is a veritable cacophony of business leaders, non-elected legislators and others conveniently labeled as being pro-government but preoccupied not so much with how to support the administration as with the thought that they do not wish to be caught up in the backlash against its deeply unpopular leader.

Anyone doubting this statement need only examine their publicity materials being prepared for up-coming elections.

The name Leung Chun-ying is notably absent.

These establishment figures would almost certainly fall back in line if told to do so by the good folk over in Western.

But the Chinese authorities are sending out mixed signals.

At one moment, CY basks in praise from leaders in Beijing; at other times, he gets no more than a nod.

And when it comes to Mr. Leung running for a second term, there is, at least for the time being, a clear reluctance to give him the backing he needs.

Festering in the background are the people who work most closely with the chief executive and, with few exceptions, would be highly relieved to see him go.

Traditional civil servants are appalled by his lack of appreciation for their way of doing things.

They find him to be personally cold, intensely suspicious and not in the slightest bit collegiate.

Most of the political appointees to so called ministerial jobs have no choice but to support Mr. Leung, but even here you hear despairing talk of the way he works and locks out colleagues from the decision making process.

His predecessor, Donald Tsang, was hardly up to the job, but at least he retained the loyalty of the civil service.

CY has gone way past the point where this is possible.

What does all this mean for the future of Hong Kong politics?

Probably not much for the time being, but it clearly adds to the depressing dysfunctionality of the political system and points to a whole host of problems for the anti-democrats, who used to comfort themselves with the thought that, unlike the democrats, they were good at maintaining unity.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author