Posted: Aug. 16, 2010
Fifteen years ago, Legislative Councilor Christine Loh sparked a small storm of controversy with her April 1995 motion to debate the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Hong Kong. Local leftists and Chinese officials were livid at her temerity in attempting to break the most basic unspoken ground rule governing the one-country- two-systems experiment. Officially, the CCP did not exist here then nor does it now. The controversy flared briefly, produced no result, and was revived by Loh with another equally unproductive motion debate in March 1997, shortly before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty on July First.*
A few years later, in 2000, Christine Loh withdrew from the frontline of local politics and has since devoted herself to policy research as head of Civic Exchange, a think-tank she founded at that time. With her latest book, provocatively titled “Underground Front: the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong,” Loh nevertheless sought to revive not the controversy but the public debate she tried to foster in the mid-1990s.** Unfortunately, she seems to have failed yet again. Unlike the Young/Cullen book on Chief Executive elections (July 23 post), Underground Front was published with months to spare before the all-important June vote on Hong Kong’s latest round of political reforms. This time, however, local leftists attended her book promotions but remained silent in public and dismissive in private, allowing the subject to take its place among the carefully avoided unmentionables of the 2010 political reform debate.
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
More than a decade after reunification, the CCP’s local branch remains unacknowledged, often referred to in passing, but never discussed openly at length. The only authoritative confirmation is a statement by Xu Jiatun, Beijing’s official representative in Hong Kong from 1983 to 1990. Xu reported that there had been about 6,000 CCP members in Hong Kong and Macau as of 1983, just over half of whom were local people. The rest were mainlanders assigned to work locally and their party branch was known internally as the Hong Kong-Macau Work Committee. This information appeared in Xu’s memoirs, written after he fled to the United States to escape retribution during the political house cleaning that followed the 1989 student movement.***
Otherwise, a vow of secrecy has been taken by all in a position to know and the public at large remains generally unquestioning and undemanding. An opinion survey conducted in 2007 by Baptist University’s Transition Project for Loh’s study, revealed that 50.9% of the respondents were not worried about CCP interference in Hong Kong life; 46% ranged from slightly to very worried. On the question of “coming out,” 36% said that CCP members should declare themselves, but 46.8% said they did not want to know (pp. 11-12).
So the question remains: if the CCP doesn’t want to tell and the general public doesn’t want to ask, why should anyone else care? Loh has set herself the task of explaining why everyone should care and her main point is the same now as before. Hong Kongers have sustained their popular movement for Western-style democracy since the 1980s, in the belief that it can guarantee their freedoms and promote good open government. Since the CCP openly dominates all aspects of political life in China, and since Hong Kong is now part of China where the CCP adamantly opposes the ways and means of Western-style democratic government, the party’s role in Hong Kong should at least be open to public discussion.
The added reason now, as Loh points out, is that various unacknowledged manifestations of CCP influence are much more evident than in the mid-1990s. “It is no secret that the CCP carries out extensive propaganda and united front work in Hong Kong, and that it has a large structure that is coordinated and led today by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government … It is well-organized, well-funded, and politically active, including in elections.” (p. 13). Her perspective has evolved accordingly. In 1995, Loh’s Legislative Council motion merely sought clarification as to whether the CCP would exist openly in Hong Kong after 1997 and if so what its functions would be. Today she thinks the time has come to discuss whether the CCP should operate openly since it is clearly operating but without formal recognition or accountability.
ESSENTIALS OF LENINISM
Hong Kong has long been known as a political backwater: the last major British colony, the last to introduce any form of representative government, and now probably the last place on earth needing an introduction to the basics of a political system built during the early decades of the 20th century to seize and maintain political power in the name of proletarian revolution. Even that revolution itself has passed into history. But the old structures and functions of communist party rule live on now strengthened, ironically, by China’s success in experimenting with capitalist economics.
Until recently, no one in Hong Kong needed to know about such a system except for party members themselves and they have their own study materials to guide them. Underground Front provides the basics by way of introduction to these unfamiliar political concepts and structures that are now making their influence felt, often without the general public even being aware of their presence. This, of course, is the reason for the old revolutionary terminology.
Communist movements were supposed to remain unacknowledged or “underground” in “white” territory, meaning in places where the party was still struggling to win power. Infiltration and subversion were the names for that game, plus parliamentary takeovers-from-below in countries with elections and voters. Once victorious, the color changed from white to red and members emerged to form the party-led dictatorship. Since Hong Kong is not yet fully integrated within the mainland political system and since a voting majority of the population still harbors negative views about CCP rule, its local organization remains underground. Hence Hong Kongers today still know little of democratic centralism, dialectical materialism, the interlocking center-to-locality relationship between party and government, or the pervasive network of party branches and cells in work units throughout the country.
In one sense, the book’s title is misleading, but Loh was the first to point out that this is not the hoped for “insider’s” secret history of the local party branch. Instead, she provides a survey, based mostly on already published material, of Chinese events and policies that have affected Hong Kong, as well as the known activities of Chinese officials assigned to work in Hong Kong where they also lead the local community of adherents. This community refers to itself variously as patriotic, traditional leftist, pro-Beijing, and nowadays often simply as pro-government or pro-establishment. The local CCP branch remains hidden within this growing community and it is these leading core members that Loh and some others now think should reveal themselves. This is, in other words, the story of communist China in Hong Kong, re-told from the perspective of someone who, like most Hong Kongers, has not until now focused on this aspect of local history. Loh’s point is that their head-in-the-sand approach, inherited from Hong Kong’s anti-communist past, is a luxury the political community can no longer afford.
Her account begins with the first Marxist study group organized in the early 1920s. The local branch itself was formed in 1924, and its story is known primarily within the context of early CCP history that has been well-researched by others: the great Guangzhou-Hong Kong Strike Boycott of 1925-26; the 1927 communist uprising in neighboring Guangzhou and subsequent purge at the hands of Chiang Kai’shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party; World War II and the CCP-led guerrilla movement during the 1941-45 Japanese occupation of Hong Kong; the 1945-49 CCP-KMT civil war; and ultimate communist victory in 1949 followed by a massive influx of anti-communist mainland migrants.
For contemporary Hong Kong’s political life, however, the story really begins in 1947 when a local branch of the New China News Agency was established. It was allowed by the British to serve as Beijing’s unofficial representative in the colony and as cover for the unacknowledged local CCP branch, roles that continued to be played by the news agency until they were taken over in 2000 by the Central Liaison Office. After getting off to a rocky start in the early 1950s, this arrangement worked well for Hong Kong with only the 1967 communist-instigated riots to disrupt the surface calm. Leftists were ignored by the mainstream anti-communist majority and marginalized in all aspects of public life by the colonial government, which also used their disruptive potential as the chief excuse for not introducing elected representation in government.
THE NEW POLITICAL ORDER
Loh then re-tells the familiar story of pre-1997 preparations for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty and post-1997 political management primarily in terms of Beijing’s most visible efforts to build a new political order. These revolved around the two tried and true revolutionary helpmates: united front work and propaganda or media management. She describes how they appeared in local eyes as Hong Kong’s social notables — business, intellectual, and community leaders — were wined, dined, hosted on China trips, and honored with appointments to all the various committees used in putting together Hong Kong’s new post-colonial establishment. Ultimately, about a thousand such people were drawn into this elite circle that was used to fulfill the mandates of Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution.
She might have added, but did not, some “insiders” perspectives on these people who were often resented by old-time leftists. The newcomers were typically members of the old colonial establishment who had been more than eager to mock and marginalize “patriots” back in the day. Newcomers were and still are referred to as “united front objects,” and if the wooing effort pays off as “united front successes.” Leftists are currently discussing among themselves whether the Democratic Party is ready to be considered in this light after their unexpected turn-around on the political reform package in June. If the shift involves some sort of remuneration, the reference is less flattering as when tea table pundits announce that so-and-so has been successfully “bought.”
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Yet despite its provocative title and important message, the impact of Underground Front is much reduced by the allusive Hong Kong way of discussing its fundamental political contradiction: between the local belief in Western-style democracy as a safeguard for personal freedoms, and Beijing’s tireless effort to discredit it. Democracy’s local advocates are at their best when making grand gestures and demonstrating with candlelight vigils and rallies and marches in support of lofty goals. But when confronted with the practical nuts-and-bolts challenge of building Western-style democratic safeguards that can withstand China’s opposition, discourse trails off into the realm of ideals and generalities.
When asked why they are not more focused on that practical challenge, pan-democrats say because they want to avoid further antagonizing Beijing, or because the subject is “too complicated.” But in Loh’s case neither excuse should apply. Having infuriated Beijing before 1997, she has now written a book on the same subject that set off fireworks before. Nor has she gone out of her way to simplify complexities. Hence in her case, there can be only one reason, which seems to be true of many other local democrats as well: they are simply out-of-date.
Underground Front rightly reminds Hong Kong readers that they are dealing with an old-fashioned communist party such as we used to read about in our Cold War studies textbooks. But the one thing Loh neglects to emphasize is the latest (post-1976 reform-era) innovation in the CCP’s self-strengthening effort, namely, local elections. There are many points she could have made to clarify how this adaptation by a Leninist party can be seen working its way into Hong Kong’s political system via the very same conventional principles of cooptation and infiltration she emphasizes. Her account comes close, but not close enough to illustrate the full story of how the CCP-led underground is applying its traditional skills “above ground” to subvert Hong Kong’s democratic ideals.
For example, she was asked repeatedly at her book promotions if Hong Kong’s largest political party, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), is in fact a cover for the local CCP branch. She always replied simply that she did not know. What she might have said is that it really doesn’t matter because the DAB is a functional equivalent of the CCP in important respects: as a mass-based (14,000 members) hierarchically organized and highly disciplined party that is unfailingly loyal to Beijing. The DAB is also participating in local elections — much like the CCP does on the mainland. The chief difference in this last respect is that Hong Kong still allows “opposition” democratic parties to compete as well.
Loh describes how the Liaison Office and DAB-led election machinery has organized multiple grassroots satellite groups to serve as needed for all kinds of campaign-support activities (p. 186). But she does not go on to explain how these groups have now surreptitiously exploited the existing fragmented constituencies and helped the DAB gain majority control on all but two of Hong Kong’s 18 local-level District Councils. Three such satellites: the Kowloon Federation of Associations, the New Territories Association of Societies, and Civic Force, fielded some 80 candidates in the last, 2007, District Council elections while carefully concealing their political associations. Insiders know, outsiders don’t, and voters are none the wiser.
Loh mentions the government’s aborted 2005 political reform proposal that tried to introduce the practice of indirect elections to the Legislative Council by District Councilors. The debate over the government’s recycled version of that same 2005 proposal was raging earlier this year. Yet Loh never explained to her audiences how that proposal — promoted internally by the DAB with the long-term aim of filling half the legislature in that manner by 2020 — would serve as a precedent for introducing current mainland practice. China’s Constitution spells out the rules which guide the formation of the People’s Congress system, that is, the state structure that legitimizes CCP leadership. National and local congresses are “constituted through elections” (Article 3). These are direct at the county level and below (Art. 97), and indirect at the levels above (Art. 59), with the CCP controlling candidates throughout.
Loh concludes by reiterating the public’s general demand for “open government, good governance, respect for human rights and democracy.” The current system, she says, cannot meet those demands. Nor can the CCP’s underground front if it carries on unchanged because “the weakness of party operations in Hong Kong to date is that it is focused on united front and propaganda work.” In fact, that is also its strength.
The weakness of Loh’s argument is that she has not sufficiently sharpened her own focus while discussing how the CCP-DAB operation has adapted traditional united front work to master the ways and means of Hong Kong’s semi-Westernized election system. Her plea for CCP transparency should be directed first to Hong Kong’s democratic politicians and opinion leaders who need to define and explain their demands for democracy more clearly, in terms of the specific institutional dangers and electoral challenges they face.
* Hong Kong Legislative Council, Official Record of Proceedings, April 26, 1995 and March 5, 1997 (http://www.legco.gov/hk/).
** Hong Kong University Press, 2010; Chinese translation due out later this year.
*** Xu Jiatun, Xianggang huiyilu (Hong Kong Memoirs), Taibei: Lianho bao, 1993,
vol. 1, p. 69.
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