Beijing’s liaison office free to do its own thing, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says after ownership of leading publisher revealed
Former Sino United Publishing chairman Lee Cho-jat confirms office’s role in company
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday that the work of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong should not be interfered with as long as it is law-abiding, after a former head of the city’s biggest publishing conglomerate confirmed that the agency controlled the company.
Lam was responding to the remarks of Lee Cho-jat, former chairman of Sino United Publishing (SUP), who in an RTHK programme on Monday confirmed the liaison office’s role in the company, which owned more than 50, or over half, of the bookstores in the city.
The programme, Hong Kong Connection, found the liaison office owned the conglomerate through a multilayered network of companies.
“SUP is a state asset, and the liaison office is the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, so the office should be commissioned by Beijing to coordinate and manage these units,” Lee said in response.
But he insisted that SUP’s mission “is to publish”. There was no political motive behind its business operations and decision-making, he said.
Lam declined to comment on whether the office’s business involvement contravened the “one country, two systems” governing principle, under which Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy after it returned from British rule in 1997.
“I don’t have such information, so it is difficult to comment. But the liaison office is the central government’s organisation in Hong Kong, so it has to buy properties and do other things that match its mission. We should not interfere as long as they are law-abiding,” Lam said in a media briefing before a weekly meeting of the Executive Council, or her cabinet.
Under Article 22 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, no authority under Beijing may interfere in the affairs which Hong Kong administers on its own. Under Article 27, Hong Kong residents have, among other liberties, freedom of speech, of the press and of publication.
According to the office’s website, its main responsibilities are to liaise with the offices of Beijing’s foreign ministry and the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong.
It is also responsible for liaising with and assisting mainland Chinese authorities in managing state-funded organisations in Hong Kong, to promote economic and cultural exchanges and cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland, and to “work on other matters commissioned by the central government”.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said it was not the liaison office’s responsibility to acquire or own publishers and bookstores.
“The law doesn’t forbid the liaison office from making business investments … but it is directly controlling a large number of publishers. This would make people feel that Beijing is interfering with Hong Kong’s publication sector with the funds of its office in the city,” Wu said.
“The liaison office is not worried about reinforcing the public perception that it is interfering with the city’s affairs.”
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RTHK reported on Monday that SUP was the owner behind Chung Hwa Book, Joint Publishing (HK) and Commercial Press, which operate 53 branches around the city. It also owns SUP Publishing Logistics, the city’s largest book distributor, and nearly 30 publishing companies in Hong Kong.
The public broadcaster’s investigation revealed that SUP is owned by Xin Wenhua (Hong Kong) Development Company Limited, which in turn is owned by Guangdong Xin Wenhua, a firm registered in Guangzhou.
Three mainland business information search firms commissioned by RTHK then confirmed that Guangdong Xin Wenhua is fully owned by Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong. When a journalist tried to visit the company’s registered address in Guangzhou, she was refused entry as a security guard said the enclosed area was a residence “of the central government’s liaison office”.
In 2015, Up Publications, a small independent publishing firm with a pro-democracy background, had accused SUP of “indirectly murdering the whole publishing industry” by returning hundreds of books after the Occupy protests.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said the liaison office’s indirect control over the city’s book distribution “undermined Hong Kong’s freedom of publication and diversity in culture and arts”.
But Executive Council member Ip Kwok-him, a local deputy of the National People’s Congress, said Hong Kong’s freedom of publication had not been compromised.
“It was not interference. There are various types of publications in Hong Kong … and no one can stop another person from publishing whatever they want,” Ip said.
“It is a characteristic of Hong Kong that any registered company can do business here … and a lot of state-owned corporations and banks are engaging in the city’s economic activities.”
Ip suggested that it was not an issue for a pro-democracy publisher to face difficulties in getting a book distributed, as pro-establishment groups would also have problems doing business with a pro-democracy publisher.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, of the Federation of Trade Unions, also said there was nothing wrong with the liaison office holding a controlling stake in SUP.
“The liaison office used to be the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency [before 1997], which was commissioned by China to hold a controlling stake … but it does not mean that the liaison office is handling the daily management or interfering with the business of Sino United,” Wong said.
“China’s state-owned businesses have a long history in Hong Kong … Residents are used to it and did not feel that the variety of books being sold by Sino United is especially narrow.”
Wong said he noticed that SUP stores had been selling books that “advocate views obviously different from Beijing’s”.