[July 01, 2014]By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Benjamin Kang Lim
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) - Since
Britain handed back colonial Hong Kong in 1997, retired primary school
teacher and Falun Gong devotee Lau Wai-hing has fully exercised the
freedoms China promised this city of 7.2 million.
Lau and fellow believers regularly staged protests to explain the
teachings of their spiritual movement and draw attention to the
persecution of followers on the mainland, where the sect is banned.
Until about a year ago, their protests were uneventful. That changed
when a noisy rival group set up their placards and banners on the
same pavement in the busy shopping area of Causeway Bay.
The 63-year-old Lau and her fellow protesters said they've been
punched, shoved and sworn at since the newcomers from the "Care for
the Youth Group Association Hong Kong" arrived with their blaring
loudspeakers. Each protest is now a battle to be heard. "It is much
more difficult now given these attacks, this external pressure,
these forces from China," said Lau amid the amplified din on Sogo
Corner, Hong Kong's neon-lit version of New York's Times Square.
For critics of the pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong, groups like
the Care for the Youth Group Association are part of a campaign from
the mainland to tighten control over China's most freewheeling city.
Increasingly, they say, Beijing is raising its voice. In the
streets, boardrooms, newsrooms, churches and local government
offices, individuals and organizations with links to the state and
China's Communist Party are playing a bigger role in civil and
political life, well-placed sources in Hong Kong and Beijing say.
Whenever there are anti-government public protests, a pro-Beijing
counter movement invariably appears. This year's 25th anniversary
commemoration of the protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square
drew a rival demonstration to defend China's bloody crackdown on
June 4, 1989.
Mainland officials based in Hong Kong now routinely seek to
influence local media coverage.
Catholic priests in Hong Kong report that agents from China's
security service have stepped up their monitoring of prominent
And, Beijing's official representative body, the Liaison Office of
the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, now is able to shape
policy in the office of city chief executive Leung Chun-ying, say
two sources close to the city's leader.
Residents of this global financial center could not help noticing a
more overt sign of China's rule in the former British colony: Huge
Chinese characters spelling out "People's Liberation Army" in a
blaze of neon alongside the military's waterfront headquarters that
suddenly appeared at the beginning of June.
For Beijing's critics in Hong Kong, the 1997 handover is feeling
more like a takeover.
"Blatant interference is increasing," says Anson Chan, who led Hong
Kong's 160,000-strong civil service in the last years of British
rule and continued in that role for several years after the
Chan cited as examples pressures on Hong Kong companies not to
advertise in pro-democratic newspapers, attempts to limit debate
about democratic reform, and the higher profile increasingly being
taken by Beijing's official representatives in the city.
"It's not another Chinese city and it shouldn't become one. Hong
Kong is unique," said Chan.
XI'S TOUGHER LINE
In China’s opaque political system, it is impossible to determine
whether the party’s growing clout in the territory is entirely the
result of a campaign organized from on high, or partly the doing of
mainland and local officials eager to please Beijing. Still, a
tougher line on Hong Kong is coming from the top.
Despite promises that post-handover Hong Kong should enjoy a high
degree of autonomy, China's President Xi Jinping, is said to have
decided that Beijing has been too lenient.
"Xi Jinping has rectified (China's) policy for governing Hong Kong,"
a source close to the Chinese leader told Reuters in Beijing,
requesting anonymity. "In the past, the mainland compromised toward
Hong Kong too much and was perceived to be weak."
This tightening grip has fueled resentment and sparked a civil
disobedience movement called "Occupy Central", which threatens to
blockade part of Hong Kong's main business district.
Mass protests can paralyze this high-density city. Business leaders
have warned that Occupy could damage businesses: Four of the largest
multinational accounting firms placed advertisements in local
newspapers warning against the movement, which has been branded
illegal by Chinese authorities.
Occupy's primary aim is to pressure China into allowing a truly
democratic election in 2017.
Beijing says Hong Kong can go ahead with a vote in 2017 for the
city's top leader. But mainland officials stress that Hong Kong's
mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies that only a nominating
committee can pick leadership candidates. Pro-democracy activists
demand changes that would allow the public to directly nominate
Nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum that ended
on Sunday, which called for Beijing to allow open nominations of
candidates for the 2017 poll – a vote China's State Council, or
cabinet, called "illegal and invalid", said the state Xinhua news
Fears that the screws are tightening were heightened when Beijing
published an unprecedented cabinet-level White Paper in June on Hong
Kong. It bluntly reminded Hong Kong that China holds supreme
authority over the city.
"The high degree of autonomy of (Hong Kong) is not an inherent
power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the
central leadership," it says.
The policy document took about a year to prepare and was approved by
the 25-member, decision-making Communist Party Politburo around a
month ago, a second source close to Xi told Reuters in Beijing.
It's a tricky issue for China's new leadership. Hong Kong's
democratic experiment is seen as a litmus test of Beijing's
tolerance for eventual political reforms on the mainland, where
calls for greater civil liberties and grassroots democracy have been
growing, experts say.
President Xi, who has swiftly consolidated power in China since
taking office by taking a hard line on domestic and foreign affairs,
is unlikely to compromise on Hong Kong, the sources close to the
"Hong Kong is no different," the second source with ties to China's
leadership said. "Pushing for democracy in Hong Kong is tantamount
to asking the tiger for its skin."
China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong is housed in a skyscraper
stacked with surveillance cameras, ringed by steel barricades and
topped by a reinforced glass globe. Soaring above streets filled
with dried fish shops and small traders, it is known in Cantonese
slang as "Sai Wan", a reference to the gritty western end of Hong
Kong Island where it is located. Each day, hundreds of staff, mostly
mainland Chinese, stream into the matte-grey building and its marble
lobby with a large Chinese screen painting of pine trees.
Hong Kong is both part of China and outside of it as defined in the
1984 Joint Declaration, the treaty under which Britain handed over
its former colony.
"One country, two systems" - conceived by China's then-paramount
leader Deng Xiaoping and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -
let Hong Kong keep its free-market economy and
internationally-respected legal system, with the exception of
foreign affairs and defense.
As China's on-the-ground presence in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office's
formal role is described in China's recent White Paper as helping to
manage the Chinese government's ties with the city, as well as
"communication with personages from all sectors of Hong Kong
Two high-level sources with close ties to Leung, the Hong Kong Chief
Executive, say the Liaison Office does much more than that: It helps
shape strategically significant government policies.
"The real cabinet is the shadow cabinet," said one source close to
Leung. "The chief executive's office can't do without the Liaison
Office's help on certain matters."
The Chief Executive’s office did not directly respond to questions
on the extent of its ties with the Liaison office. It said in an
emailed response that China and Hong Kong shared a close
relationship on multiple fronts, including at “government-
to-government level”. The office stressed Hong Kong’s autonomy and
noted that the Basic Law says no Chinese government body may
interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
China's Liaison Office did not respond to faxes and phone calls
seeking comment. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing,
which has Cabinet-level authority over the territory from Beijing,
did not respond to faxed questions.
The Liaison Office uses its broad networks, spanning grassroots
associations, businessmen and politicians, to help the Hong Kong
government push through policies needing approval from a largely
pro-Beijing legislature. These have included the debate over
democratic reforms in Hong Kong and a multi-billion-dollar
high-speed rail link to China, one source said.
Liaison Office chiefs were once rarely seen. But the current
director, Zhang Xiaoming, has taken on a far more public role since
taking office 18 months ago - around the same time that Xi Jinping
became China's leader and Leung Chun-ying became chief executive in
Hong Kong. Zhang has lunched with legislators and also attends
society gatherings alongside local tycoons and business leaders.
Zhang did not respond to requests for comment.
Liaison Office staff, including some from the propaganda department,
regularly phone editors and senior journalists at Hong Kong media
Sometimes, these officials give what are known as "soft warnings"
not to report sensitive topics, according to media sources and a
report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association in 2013.
In one case, a television journalist was called by a Beijing
official who mentioned an interview the journalist was planning. The
journalist "learned that this was a warning meaning that he was
'being watched' and that he should not conduct sensitive
interviews," the report said.
Foreign diplomats and local academics believe the Liaison Office
coordinates and implements the strategy of the Communist Party
inside Hong Kong, although the hierarchy, membership and structure
of the party in Hong Kong remain a secret.
Before the 1997 handover, the Chinese Communist Party focused on
courting businessmen, academics and activists to secure influence
and loyalty. It has now become more assertive, attempting to isolate
party enemies, silence critics, and deliver votes, Hong Kong
scholars and a source close to the Liaison Office say.
The vehicle for this strategy is a Beijing-based entity called the
United Front Work Department, an organ of the Communist Party's
Central Committee, whose mission is to propagate the goals of the
Party across non-party elites.
The Liaison Office's Coordination and Social Group Liaison
departments report directly to Beijing's United Front Work
Department, according to a source in frequent touch with Liaison
Office staff, who declined to be named.
"There is deeper penetration by the United Front in Hong Kong in
recent years," said Sonny Lo, an academic and author of a book on
China's underground control of Hong Kong. "In part, the United Front
is working to counter and adapt to the rise of democratic populism
and as a result we are seeing these new groups take to the streets.
"United Front groups are being more heavily mobilized to not just
support government policy but to counter rival forces."
A legacy of the earliest days of Leninist communist revolutionary
theory, the United Front Work Department's mission is to influence
and ultimately control a range of non-party groups, luring some into
cooperation and isolating and denouncing others, according to
scholars of Communist history.
"The tactics and techniques of the United Front have been refined
and perfected over the decades and we are seeing a very modern
articulation of it in Hong Kong," says Frank Dikotter, a Hong Kong
University historian and author of nine books on Chinese history.
The United Front - like the Communist Party itself - doesn't exist
as a registered body in Hong Kong. There is no publicly available
information about its network or structure. Neither the United Front
Work Department in Beijing, nor the Liaison Office in Hong Kong,
responded to questions from Reuters about the purported activities
of the Front in Hong Kong.
But it is possible to trace links from some grassroots groups to
mainland-owned businesses and the Liaison office.
A Reuters examination of the societies registration documents for
the Care for the Youth Group Association obtained from Hong Kong
police show that the group's chairman is Hung Wai-shing and the vice
chairman is Lam Kwok-on.
Police and corporate filings also show Hung is a director of a New
Territories clan association that researchers believe is a core part
of China's United Front operations in the city's northern fringes
close to the Chinese border.
Hung is also a director of several Hong Kong subsidiaries of Beijing
Yanjing Brewery Co. Ltd, a state-owned Chinese brewery that stock
exchange filings show is in turn majority owned by two investment
vehicles ultimately tied to the Beijing city government.
Reports in the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po newspapers in Hong Kong -
both mouthpieces for Beijing - have described Hung socializing with
Liaison Office officials in the New Territories.
Hung denied any connection to the youth association when Reuters
visited him at his Yanjing Beer office in Hong Kong's Fanling
"What you refer to, the Care for the Youth association, I tell you
I'm not involved," said Hung, a lean, middle-aged man with bushy
eyebrows and thinning hair, who then called the police to complain
about being questioned.
Youth care association Vice-chairman Lam is a regular at the
anti-Falun Gong protests on Sogo corner. He ignored questions from
Reuters about his role with the youth association at a recent
Other street groups, including the one that opposed Hong Kong's
Tiananmen commemoration, are run by individuals linked to a network
of business chambers and associations in Hong Kong, including some
that are at the vanguard of United Front work in the city, scholars
The chairman of one of those groups, the Voice of Loving Hong Kong,
Patrick Ko, is shown in company filings to be a director of the
Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which the researcher Lo
identified as an organization under the United Front umbrella in
Ko denied any ties to Beijing's United Front Work Department. He
said his group and the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce were "run
by Hong Kong people".
Behind the scenes, agents from Beijing's powerful Ministry of State
Security are also expanding China's reach into Hong Kong, diplomats
and members of various professions say.
The Ministry of State Security sits at the apex of China's vast
security apparatus, responsible for both domestic and external
secret intelligence operations.
Professionals in Hong Kong have been invited, often discreetly
through intermediaries, to "drink tea" with agents.
The visits of these agents, who travel into Hong Kong on short-term
permits, have become more frequent and their tactics more assertive,
say multiple sources who have had contacts with such agents.
Their targets include Hong Kong-based priests, journalists, lawyers,
businessmen, academics and politicians.
Two sources told Reuters the agents offer gifts in exchange for
information and favors.
"They said they have an unlimited budget" for gifts, said one Hong
Kong-based professional in regular contact with agents.
Two priests said they received repeated visits from State Security
agents after recent tensions between China and the Vatican stemming
from China's moves to ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy
One priest recalled meeting a young and polite agent who "said he
was a friend who wanted to help" while making it clear he was
reporting to Beijing for State Security.
"It was clear he wanted secrets – gossip and views about (Hong Kong)
relationships and trends and what might be going on at the Holy
See," said the priest who declined to be identified.
In recent months, the agents have been asking about the Catholic
Church’s support for the Occupy Central movement, two priests said.
The Ministry of State Security did not answer calls to its main
telephone number in Beijing; the government does not disclose other
contact numbers for the ministry to foreign reporters.
While the battle for influence continues, there is no let up on Sogo
Corner for Lau Wai-hing and her fellow Falun Gong devotees.
On a recent Saturday, not far from where Lau was standing, members
of the Care for the Youth Group Association held a "wanted" poster
carrying Lau's photograph with the words "evil cult member" below
Lam, the group's vice chairman, raised his portable loudspeaker
rigged to a car battery. "Wipe out the evil cult Falun Gong," he
shouted, his voice reverberating down the busy street.
Lau, however, would not be deterred.
"People can see we only want to make ourselves heard. Hong Kong
should give us that freedom."