City Beat

Will there be long lines in Hong Kong when Beijing’s liaison office holds its first open day?

More proactive approach taken by central government representative raises question: will overtures mean greater transparency or assertiveness?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2018, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2018, 10:27pm

Is there going to be a long queue outside the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong when it holds its first open day?

No one can say for sure, but what’s clearer is that Beijing’s top representative and his office here are becoming more proactive in raising their profile.

The approach seems to be the opposite of what their critics are demanding, that they take a back seat regarding the city’s affairs amid allegations that Hong Kong is being “ruled by Sai Wan [Western District]”– where the office is located.

Office director Wang Zhimin last week announced a surprise decision during a Lunar New Year reception: the office will reach out to more Hongkongers by organising open-day activities.

“Our gate is always open, our people are always here to serve, the liaison office is your old friend and there is nothing mysterious about us,” Wang declared.

The liaison office is your old friend and there is nothing mysterious about us
Wang Zhimin, liaison office

The fact is, the office has always been a bit of mystery compared with other mainland institutions based in the city.

Post-1997 Hong Kong has seen three major Beijing representatives based here: the liaison office representing the central government; the People’s Liberation Army garrison, responsible for Hong Kong’s defence and a symbol of Chinese sovereignty; and the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which handles international matters for the city.

Both the garrison and the commissioner’s office receive crowds of visitors from time to time, while the PLA barracks’ open day is always popular among military enthusiasts and people who are curious about China’s armed forces.

In recent years, PLA troops have even ventured out of their barricades to participate in charity events such as visiting elderly homes, donating blood, and occasionally meeting students when invited by certain schools.

Until Wang’s unexpected announcement, the liaison office had remained relatively opaque – usually only opening the gate for pro-establishment heavyweights, government officials, local deputies to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, or selected representatives of various sectors.

There was a rare breakthrough in 2010 when the office received a group of very special visitors – the Democratic Party was invited to discuss an electoral reform proposal that was the political hot potato back then.

It was the one and only time that members of the city’s pan-democratic camp entered the uncharted territory of “Sai Wan”. Relations between Beijing and the opposition camp soon soured as they could not narrow the gap between them on the pace of Hong Kong’s democratic development.

The Democratic Party was later attacked by its rivals in election campaigns for negotiating with the office that it had always treated with suspicion.

The situation deteriorated over the years, with allegations that the office was getting too involved and even meddling in local affairs, and any visit to the office became a political taboo for many.

The controversy remains when it comes to defining the role of the office. Critics insist it should be restricted to “liaison” work only, while the office claims it has the right to carry out “duties” assigned by Beijing.

With Wang Zhimin, what will Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong be about?

Wang is apparently trying to change public perception with moves such as the open-day offer and starting staff blogs on the office’s official website for his colleagues to share their thoughts on working and living in Hong Kong.

Does it mean more transparency and camaraderie or the opposite, with an even more assertive office – or both? How do we interpret Wang’s statement that his office is ready to “walk together with you, the [Hong Kong] government as well as the 7.3 million Hong Kong compatriots”?

It will continue to generate more debate for sure.