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
Thorny topics that touch on business sector’s interests or political hot potato issues, such as national security laws, could bruise Lam’s popularity and force the liaison office to resume regular contact with Hong Kong lawmakers
Like clockwork, every two to three months during Leung Chun-ying’s term as the city’s leader, pro-establishment lawmakers would get phone calls from Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.
The caller would sometimes seek their views on policy issues. More often than not, recounted insiders who spoke to the Post, they would ask about goings-on at the Legislative Council. Leung spent almost all of his term between 2012 and June 2017 clashing with opposition lawmakers.
Apart from making calls, the liaison office officials would also lobby lawmakers, mainly from the pro-establishment camp, to support specific government proposals, said the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. They also did not think it outside their remit to offer advice to university chiefs.
Pan-democrats seethed at the actions of the liaison office, viewing it as an attempt to meddle in the city’s affairs and breaching the principle of one country, two systems under which Hong Kong is governed. Specifically, they accused the liaison office of contravening Article 22 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that states no mainland Chinese authority may interfere in the city’s affairs according to this principle.
This bugbear – though the pro-Beijing camp insists it is a demonisation of the liaison office – has eased somewhat under Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Indeed, it could be part of the reason emotions have calmed down, analysts said.
Things changed from last July when Lam was elected as chief executive.
A pro-establishment lawmaker summarised it as such: “In the past, [there was contact made] maybe every two or three months.
“When important bills were being scrutinised at the Legislative Council, liaison officials would call us and ask ‘how are things going in Legco? What’s the progress?’ But there has been very little contact in the last few months.”
Commentators attribute the liaison office’s retreat from lobbying lawmakers as a sign that Hong Kong-mainland China ties have improved since Lam took charge.
But they also warned her to tread cautiously, especially on thorny topics such as labour and land, that could divide the pro-Beijing camp.
"Lam would unavoidably touch on [the business sector’s] vested interests ... and the office could intervene if the city’s government wanted to do something that was not supported by the pro-establishment camp,” said Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a top Beijing-based think tank.
If the liaison office stepped in, commentators said, Lam’s credibility with the public would take a hit, affecting her chances of staying for a second term.
Ministers doing the lobbying
One of the most cited examples of the liaison office’s attempts at influencing politics was in 2013, when pro-establishment legislator Dr Leung Ka-lau admitted he had been “approached for discussion” by the liaison office before a Legco vote on whether to launch an inquiry into the government’s decision of denying a free-to-air television licence to a popular company.
In January this year, former University of Hong Kong chief Peter Mathieson revealed to the Post he was given advice “several times” by the liaison office.
In the run-up to the chief executive election last March, pan-democrats hit out at Lam for allowing the liaison office to help with her campaign.
She rejected the accusations. So at her first question-and-answer session with lawmakers four days after she took office as the city’s fourth chief executive, she declared she had directed ministers to “lobby lawmakers personally and not leave the task to anyone else”.
“I will set an example myself and require my principal officers to have more interaction with lawmakers,” she said.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said the liaison office had been “relatively low-profile” in the city’s political arena since then.
“It has rarely been involved in helping the local government in lobbying. I cannot think of any example,” he said.
A pro-establishment camp veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also agreed Lam had tried hard to “tone down” the impression that “Western controls Central”. Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong is in the Western district, while the government headquarters is near Central.
“Much of the lobbying for support for the co-location bill came from [the government],” the politician said, in a reference to recent legislation to set up a joint checkpoint with mainland Chinese authorities at the local terminus of a cross-border railway.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai agreed local ministers had been more active in policy lobbying this past year.
But he added it was “hard to say” whether the liaison office had refrained from lobbying his pro-establishment colleagues.
Wu said there had been no contact between the liaison office and his party members since Lam took office and during Leung’s term.
Lau said the legislators’ observations showed that while Lam had steered clear of interference from the liaison office in the past year, it was largely because there were not many issues that required the office’s attention.
“The liaison office was involved in lots of political arguments [with the pan-democratic camp] in the past,” he said.
Lau was referring to the office’s former director Zhang Xiaoming, whose tenure from 2012 to last year coincided with a time when Hong Kong was bitterly divided over a political reform exercise, and theOccupy protests of 2014.
Wang Zhimin took over as liaison office chief in September last year, as Zhang was appointed the new top Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
In April, the office took the unprecedented step of organising an open day to demystify its functions, three months after Wang famously said he had heard from “many friends” that they were pleased to see both the city’s government and the liaison office “work together” more often.
Shifting from politics to the economy
The Post asked several Hong Kong ministers to explain whether the office had given them any advice on their work.
But a government spokesman responded on their behalf and said: “The government is keeping regular contact with the liaison office to exchange views on Hong Kong-mainland cooperation matters.”
In comparison, the University of Science and Technology’s incoming president Professor Wei Shyy gave a clearer answer. Since the January announcement that he would lead the institution from September, Shyy said: “I was never asked [nor given hints] to follow any particular policy or advice from the liaison office.”
But he added that it was in the interest of the university to “listen to the views of our stakeholders”.
A spokeswoman from Chinese University would only say it had “always maintained constructive communication with various sectors” including the liaison office.
Pundits said the responses showed the liaison office had shifted from being high-profile on political matters, to focusing more on socio-economic issues, such as helping the city to integrate into China’s development strategies.
For example, last November, Wang urged young Hongkongers to get involved in the “entrepreneurs’ paradise” of the Greater Bay Area, the Beijing-backed economic development drive linking Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province.
But the liaison office could still intervene in local policies in the future, Lau added, should Lam’s cabinet fail to pacify the business and grassroot factions of the pro-establishment camp, when handling labour and land issues.
Wong, a veteran unionist, agreed. He said: “When the government is [going to challenge] property tycoons’ interests, it might need the central government’s help.”
However, veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu warned that Beijing’s involvement in local policies would bruise Lam’s popularity and public image.
“In Beijing officials’ eyes, it would be better for Lam to seek re-election with higher popularity,” he said.
Lau added that Lam’s re-election bid would also depend on how she deals with political hot potato issues, such as the enactment of national anthem and national security laws. The former criminalises insulting or distorting the Chinese national anthem and the latter prohibits any act “of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the central government.
In recent months, Lam’s administration has faced mounting pressure from the pro-Beijing camp to enact the latter bill, which was shelved in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets to oppose it, fearing an erosion of civil liberties.