Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong - or, to give him his official title, director of the liaison office of the central government - recently attempted to assure the people of Hong Kong that his office does not run the SAR.

Known by various titles in Chinese history, agents of the central government tasked with keeping an eye on local governments were not always so hands-off in their approach. As emissaries of the emperor and monitors of local governors, they exerted enormous influence in the running of the provinces. In fact, many rulers, wary of the seditious tendencies of provincial leaders, used their representatives to browbeat the latter into submission.

The emperors of the short-lived Southern Qi dynasty (479-502) were so suspicious of their subordinates that local governors, usually princes from the imperial family, became mere figureheads and the actual running of the provinces was placed in the hands of these lower-ranking agents - who often interfered even with the private and/or everyday affairs of their supposed superiors. According to one contemporary record, the princes "must inform the agents if they want a lotus root or a cup of broth. If the agents are not there, they would have to endure being thirsty the whole day."

The rule may not have been enforced to the letter but it reflects the powerlessness of local officials before the emperor's representatives. Thankfully, this is not the case in Hong Kong today. Or so we are told.