22 February 2019
Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming (center) toasts with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (far right) and his predecessor Tung Chee-hwa (second right) in front of a giant Chinese flag. Photo: CNSA
Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming (center) toasts with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (far right) and his predecessor Tung Chee-hwa (second right) in front of a giant Chinese flag. Photo: CNSA

Liaison Office and the shifting of gravity to Sai Wan

Pro-democracy protests used to end with slogan-chanting, flag-waving and a lot of rage directed at officials at Government Hill in Central.

Since the handover, however, more demonstrations have skipped the SAR government compound and headed farther into Sai Wan, where Beijing’s top envoy resides.

The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong SAR, led by its current director, Zhang Xiaoming, seems bent on ensuring the victory of its candidate Carrie Lam in the chief executive race.

It’s feared that Hong Kong may degenerate into a mainland governance model – its head of government coming under and reporting to a Communist Party secretary – should the Liaison Office-anointed Lam get “elected”.

In such a scenario, as commentators say, the Liaison Office chief assumes the role of party secretary of Hong Kong while the chief executive becomes a mere figurehead, the mayor of Hong Kong. Forget about “one country, two systems”.

A brief history

The office’s predecessor, the Hong Kong Bureau of the New China News Agency (Xinhua), was established in 1947, and became Beijing’s quasi-embassy in the crown colony following the founding of the Communist republic two years later.

The bureau also housed the Communist Party’s working committee on Hong Kong affairs, which has been operating undercover until today.

Beijing once considered pulling back all the party cadres from the Xinhua branch in Hong Kong, so it dispatched a dozen investigators to the territory in the run-up to the handover to assess the situation.

Veteran journalist and commentator Ching Cheong was among the few whose advice was sought.

“Quite straightforwardly, I said that if there was a top Beijing envoy in the city after the handover, then Hongkongers would only look up to him, not the chief executive, in the SAR’s governance,” Cheong said.

The initial decision was for the mainland officials to leave the territory after 1997 to avoid the perception of having two governments in one SAR.

But Cheong told the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly that Xinhua strongly opposed the pullback, citing a plethora of reasons to stay, like using Hong Kong as a propaganda platform for Taiwan, coordinating local elections to make sure Beijing’s favorites always win, and fending off infiltration by Western powers, among others.

And so the party cadres in Hong Kong were not only allowed to stay but also assigned more tasks as well as privileges. In 1999 the Xinhua branch was officially renamed the Liaison Office.

Still, Beijing must be given the credit for its self-restraint in the initial years following the handover. For example, it once resolved to bar the office from establishing any contact with the SAR authorities.

“Should the chief executive need assistance from the Liaison Office, he would have to report the issue to the central authorities first … Beijing would then give instructions to the office,” Cheong said.

“The SAR government complex and the Liaison Office tower are just a few kilometers away from each other yet all the communications back then between the two must go through Beijing first.”

Overlords in town

The laissez-faire policy was abruptly abolished, after a massive rally attended by half a million Hong Kong people rattled Zhongnanhai in July 2003.

The Liaison Office labeled Hongkongers as “unpatriotic”, in a bid to gloss over its own faults in getting a national security bill through the local legislature, and the office urged more stringent rules for genuine, ideological reunification.

The top leadership, obviously, agreed.

That was how Hong Kong’s honeymoon with Beijing ended.

A year later came the first interpretation of the Basic Law regarding electoral reform.

A 2008 essay by a Liaison Office cadre urging that the office act as “Hong Kong’s second team of administrators” became a covert declaration of its deeper involvement in the running of the SAR.

Then we have seen in the ensuing years developments that would be unimaginable before 1997: it was the Liaison Office – not the SAR government – that negotiated the contentious constitutional reform package with lawmakers in 2010, and, as media revealed later, the office reprimanded the director of the chief executive’s office for not acting promptly to block a Legislative Council inquiry into Leung Chun-ying’s misconduct as a panelist when selecting the master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Leung paid a high-profile visit to the office the day after he won the 2012 election, and many saw it as a show of gratitude for all the help the mainland cadres had given him in a contest where he started as an underdog.

And, in another revealing instance, it was the deputy director of the Liaison Office, not Leung as the chief executive, who visited the injured and talked to a media scrum after the Lamma Island ferry tragedy in October 2012.

Leung was seen standing behind the deputy director, as if he was a mere assistant in the entourage.

Tightening the grip

As to be expected, the Liaison Office has been dutifully toeing the line of President Xi Jinping, as manifested in a 2012 article by Zhang Xiaoming on carrying through key policies of the 18th party plenum: the central government’s authority over Hong Kong must be concretized and upheld in the day-to-day governance of the SAR, he said.

Since he assumed the post that year, Zhang has been summoning, on a regular basis, senior SAR officials and members of the pro-establishment bloc to his Sai Wan complex for tips and instructions.

And, had it not been for the office’s little help in last year’s Legco election, the little known Eunice Yung from the New People’s Party could have never amassed more votes in the New Territories East constituency than her leading rival, veteran political activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.

However, the office’s interloper role sometimes did backfire: its demolition job against Kenneth Leung, in which the pan-democrat’s alleged extramarital affairs were divulged to media in an obvious attempt to besmirch his reputation and unseat him from the accounting functional constituency ended up in garnering more votes for him.

“I must thank the office for its election canvassing,” Leung half-jokingly said afterwards.

He told the HKEJ Monthly that the 28 functional constituencies, where, on the surface, candidates from across the political spectrum could run for a seat, were particularly prone to the office’s machinations.

Each constituency has only a few thousand voters, who are mainly members of pro-Beijing industry associations or chambers of commerce.

Before a major election, the Liaison Office would invite them to an all-expenses-paid trip to the mainland, and while enjoying the tour, they would receive some friendly tips from the office cadres about voting.

Swelling presence

The office’s staff headcount is said to have risen to 500 and there were once nine deputy directors overseeing up to 24 units and departments responsible for propaganda, research, intelligence, district liaison, youth affairs, legal issues, Taiwan relations, etc.

The office’s home-buying spree has also grabbed much curiosity.

In 2014 it hogged headlines after splurging about HK$480 million to acquire an entire residential high-rise in Sai Ying Pun near its headquarters.

Since then it has bought at least 84 homes and accumulated a sizable portfolio of luxury condos and offices across Happy Valley, Causeway Bay, Wan Chai, Mid-Levels, Sai Wan, West Kowloon, Kwun Tong and Kowloon Tong.

One probable explanation is that the state organ needs more space as it expands its role in the city.

This article appeared in the March issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly

Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]

Read more:

Why Liaison Office is HK’s de facto government

Liaison Office has exquisite taste for property


Zhang Xiaoming (second, left) and CY Leung (third, left) are seen at a function. Mainland cadres usually attend local ceremonies as officiating guests. Photo: CNSA

The Westpoint, a skyscraper that dominates Hong Kong Island’s western skyline, now serves as the headquarters of the Liaison Office. Photo: Skywalker Picture

Hong Kong activists stage a protest outside the Liaison Office, holding a banner that reads "Chinese go back to China". Photo: VOA

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly

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