For a long time, pro-democracy marches in the city finished at the Hong Kong government’s headquarters.
More recently they have been making their way to Sai Wan, where the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government is located.
Here, protesters regularly hit out at what they see as increasing interference by Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Indeed, the liaison office has made its presence felt to such an extent in the political, social and even educational arenas that critics claim Hong Kong is now run from Sai Wan, not Admiralty, where Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her cabinet are based.
Wang Zhimin, the Beijing official who took over as director of the liaison office a year ago, raised hackles in January when he said “many friends” had told him they were pleased to see his office and the Hong Kong government “working together” more than before.
His remarks sparked debate over the presence of the office, its expanding staff, involvement in local elections and growing influence, and whether it was increasingly overstepping what it was supposed to do in Hong Kong.
Seething pan-democrats have accused it of meddling in the city’s affairs, and breaching the principle of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong has been governed since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
Political scientist Dr Chung Kim-wah, of Polytechnic University, thought the liaison office had already crossed the line.
“The enormous financial resources and political capital which the liaison office enjoys have allowed it to twist the power balance in Hong Kong,” he said.
All of this has led pro-establishment heavyweight and former Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing to float an idea that shocked Hong Kong’s political circles last week.
He proposed introducing a new article in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, to clearly define the status, functions and responsibilities of the Beijing liaison office so that it can discharge its duties in a legitimate and justifiable manner.
Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong affairs through the city’s liaison office has eased under Carrie Lam but experts warn she still needs to tread carefully
He said there is no problem with the presence of two central government departments with offices in Hong Kong – the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the People’s Liberation Army – as their roles and functions have been spelt out clearly in the Basic Law.
But the position of the liaison office was never made clear. Instead of squabbling, he said, it is time Hongkongers did some soul-searching over what the office is supposed to do.
Others disagree, and say Wang and his office just ought to curb their enthusiasm.
Liaison office’s growing presence
Beijing has maintained a presence in Hong Kong for decades, with the official Xinhua News Agency acting as China’s de facto headquarters in the city since 1947. It was only in 2000, three years after Hong Kong was returned to China, that Beijing renamed it the “liaison office” and acknowledged its long-standing political status.
The State Council also laid down five key functions of the office: to liaise with the two other central government offices in Hong Kong; to assist mainland authorities in managing Chinese enterprises in the city; to foster cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland, and channel Hongkongers’ views to Beijing; handle issues that touch on Taiwan; and lastly – the most ambiguous function – to carry out tasks assigned by the central government.
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said: “The liaison office used to remain very low profile after the handover. Its officials would avoid appearing at the same occasion with the Hong Kong leader and they would refrain from commenting on local issues.”
But that changed after 2003. That year the political landscape of Hong Kong was reshaped after half a million of people took to the streets to protest against a proposed national security bill they feared would curtail their rights and freedoms.
The protests forced the government to shelve the legislation, a setback which prompted Beijing to tighten its grip through the liaison office.
First to feel the change were the city government’s close allies in the pro-Beijing camp.
Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, a delegate to the national legislature, confirmed that the liaison office coordinated the pro-Beijing camp’s efforts during District Council and Legco elections, when internal strife among different parties intensified.
“Sometimes one party would quote its polls and argue that its candidates had outperformed others, while another group would cite its own surveys and hit back,” Tien said. “It is not a bad thing to have a middleman coordinating [among the parties] with convincing data.”
Tien did not think this amounted to interference, and insisted that the liaison office never influenced or intimidated election hopefuls to run or not run.
Lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun has also said openly that his election bid in 2012 received the support of the liaison office.
“It is very natural that Beijing would like certain candidates to be elected,” he said. “I would say the foreign forces in Hong Kong, such as the United States and Britain, are doing the same through their representatives.”
The liaison office has also supported Beijing-friendly parties financially, albeit indirectly.
In 2016, former liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming raised eyebrows when he donated one of his own works of calligraphy to the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).
The artwork was auctioned for HK$18.8 million at the party’s fundraising dinner, which raked in a total of HK$70 million – a stark contrast to the HK$5 million which the Democratic Party raised at its event this year.
The large amount was a big boost to the DAB – the biggest pro-establishment party with more than 180 offices across Hong Kong. But critics said the auction showed how Beijing-friendly businessmen were trying to curry favour with the liaison office.
If there is one thing even pro-Beijing lawmakers have found annoying, it is the aggressive lobbying by the liaison office to garner support for the Hong Kong government, especially during periods when the administration has been in a weak position.
It was especially active when former chief executive Leung Chun-ying was in charge and struggled to gain the support of lawmakers.
Tien recalled: “During Leung’s term, the liaison office was quite heavy-handed as many people refused to comply with him.”
He said liaison office staff would track down lawmakers to secure votes for certain motions or bills, and would “find them one by one” for issues considered highly significant and political.
Wong Kwok-kin, a Beijing-friendly lawmaker, sees nothing wrong with any of that. Wong, who sits on the Executive Council which advises Lam, defended such lobbying as “very normal political activities” and said the liaison office stepped in only when invited to do so by the administration.
“No money and no intimidation is involved,” he said. “It is nothing illegal and all foreign governments do the same.”
The charm offensive
The chief of the liaison office, Wang, is no stranger to Hong Kong. He spent almost a decade at the office from 2006, before returning to Beijing briefly, and since being appointed director last September has maintained a higher profile than his predecessor, Zhang.
On his first day of work, Wang showed off his Cantonese when he met the press, and called Hong Kong his “second home”.
In the 11 months since, he has attended 29 events and delivered 21 speeches compared to just seven speeches made by Zhang at 25 events over the same period a year earlier.
In April, the office opened its doors to the public for the first time in a bid to demystify its functions and build trust with locals. People were allowed into its 41-storey premises at The Westpoint in Sai Ying Pun, where they mingled with officials, wandered through the well-stocked library, and sampled staff meals.
What remains unclear, however, is how many people work there, and how many properties it owns.
Reuters reported that it spent HK$70 million on at least 62 new flats in the 12 months after the pro-democracy Occupy movement ended in 2014.
Last year, it bought 14 flats in Kennedy Town, hinting at a possible expansion in its establishment.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the office controls Hong Kong’s biggest publishing conglomerate Sino United Publishing (SUP), which runs 53, or more than half, of all bookstores around the city. Teaching materials published by SUP have been criticised for being one-sided and pro-government.
Liaison office staff were also reported to have met secondary school principals last October to discuss the Chinese history curriculum.
Beijing loyalist Wong said that by boosting its presence, Wang might be seeking to underline Beijing’s authority in Hong Kong.
However, Wang’s efforts have touched a raw nerve among pan-democrats, who argue they violate Article 22 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that no central government department may interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Lam appears determined to shake off the image of the government needing the liaison office’s support, but the chief executive has said that its work – including its publishing business – should not be interfered with as long as it abides by the law.
The liaison office did not respond to the Post’s inquiries.
Time to draw a line?
Nearly two decades after the liaison office was established, has the time come to spell out its duties and draw clear lines?
Jasper Tsang certainly thinks so. He also argues that Article 22 of the Basic Law does not apply to the liaison office because it was specifically set up in Hong Kong, and is not a central government department.
However, members of both the pan-democratic bloc and the pro-establishment camp heaped scorn on Tsang’s suggestion to define the roles of the office.
Pro-democracy heavyweight Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said such a move would only create more grey areas.
He said the Basic Law already states clearly that Hong Kong will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, and enjoy a high degree of autonomy except on issues related to foreign affairs and defence.
“There is either intervention or no intervention,” he said, adding he feared Tsang’s idea would only legitimise meddling by the liaison office.
“Would the government take concrete action if the liaison office crosses the line which has been drawn? Who would be the law enforcer or the referee? It is just not going to work,” he said.
Beijing-friendly lawmaker Wong also brushed aside Tsang’s idea.
“Any amendment to the Basic Law is a political issue rather than an academic study,” he said. “Any changes would lead to social disputes.”
Lawmaker Paul Tse, however, thought Tsang’s idea should not be dismissed outright and said it might be good to test the waters to see how society perceives the suggestion.
“His intention, I guess, is to make the role [of the liaison office] clear in terms of law … and make it more legally tenable to respond to social concerns,” he said.
However, he did not believe that political disputes would disappear even with such laws in place, as there was no persuading critics who believe the liaison office has no right to get involved in local affairs.
Chung felt it would be inappropriate to insert new articles in the Basic Law to spell out the roles of the liaison office, as that would contradict Article 22 which already makes it clear that Beijing should not meddle in the city’s internal affairs.
Instead, he said, Hong Kong could consider spelling out the roles of the liaison office – what it should and should not do – in the form of a memorandum or document.
But Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law school, said it would be very difficult to implement a law on the roles of the liaison office if Beijing chose to disregard it.
The best solution, he felt, was for Beijing to exercise self-restraint.
But, pro-democracy veteran Lee saw little chance that Beijing would hold back in its dealings with Hong Kong, saying its officials tended to use power to the fullest, even without legal basis.
The senior counsel, who helped draft the city’s mini-constitution, recalled a candid exchange with a Beijing official during the handover talks in the 1980s.
“Lu Ping told me that the Xinhua News Agency office was actually the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong during colonial times, but the central government could not name it as such as they did not recognise the unequal treaties [which ceded Hong Kong to British rule],” Lee said.
He was referring to the late head of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO).
According to Lee, Lu said there was no need for the Xinhua office to remain after the handover as Hong Kong would officially be part of China, and other matters could be handled easily by the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in Hong Kong, or the HKMAO in Beijing.
But Beijing’s position had changed by 2000, and today the liaison office, as part of its mandate, keeps an eye on more than 4,000 Chinese enterprises in the city, more than double the 1,800 that existed in 1997.
Lee said he was unconvinced.
“The fact is, there is no need for such a liaison office to exist in Hong Kong and the amendments floated by Tsang are not going to help,” he said. “What we need is to get the implementation of one country, two systems back on the right track.”