HONG KONG – It was a classic scene from the Chinese Communist Party’s repertoire: A high-ranking official descended on the home of a poor, patriotic worker, bearing gifts and wishes for a happy National Day, receiving declarations of gratitude and loyalty in return.
But the visit this month did not take place in a hardscrabble village in mainland China, where officials often make such scripted trips to show their bond with the masses. It played out in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous territory where such overt displays by the Communist Party apparatus were once rare.
The much-publicized meeting carried a clear message, made all the more potent since China imposed a new national security law in Hong Kong this summer. The days of the central government exercising its will behind the scenes are over. Now it will rule Hong Kong increasingly in the open.
“Hong Kong’s responsibility to the nation should be emphasized more than ever,” Luo Huining, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, who leads the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, said in a speech a day before his visit. “Loving our country is an obligation and a righteous path rather than a choice.”
For Hong Kong, the shift to more direct management by Beijing is a drastic change. The Communist Party for decades allowed the former British colony to be steered by its proxies in the civil service and the business elite.
For Beijing, subduing Hong Kong is seen as fundamental to broader national control. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is intent on extending party dominance across the entire country, especially in Hong Kong, an enclave of resistance that erupted in protest last year.
At the heart of Beijing’s new drive for control is the liaison office, its official arm in Hong Kong.
Historically, the office kept a low profile, serving — as its name implies — as a go-between, shuttling messages and demands between top Chinese officials and Hong Kong authorities. But in recent months, the office has started regularly blaring orders and warnings that underscore its newly elevated role.
The liaison office accused a professor of instigating an anti-party insurrection. It demanded that pro-democracy politicians cancel informal primary elections. It warned Hong Kong teachers to make sure their students are immersed in patriotic Chinese values.
On Monday, two days before Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was set to deliver her annual policy address, she abruptly announced a postponement until she could consult top Chinese leaders about her proposals. She said she would travel to Beijing to “personally explain why these measures are important.”
Many of Hong Kong’s traditional power brokers appear resigned to the new reality.
“It has become one-way traffic,” said James Tien, a former pro-Beijing lawmaker and influential magnate.
The liaison office was born in secrecy, posing during the British colonial era as an outlet of China’s main news agency. When Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, China’s rulers were eager to harness the commercial energy of Hong Kong and to learn from its business leaders — and the office operated in the background.
“Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” was the mantra.
But in recent years, central leaders appeared to lose faith in that hands-off arrangement, especially as demonstrations convulsed the city.
Beijing pushed through the security law with little input from Hong Kong. It gave local leaders, including Lam, little advance notice.
“They learned from our bitter experience,” said Regina Ip, a member of Lam’s Cabinet, referring to a Hong Kong government effort she led in 2003 to enact similar legislation, which was derailed by popular opposition. “What’s the point of consultation?”
The law allows China’s security agencies to set up offices and operate openly in Hong Kong, and a mainland official heads a new national security office. Luo, the liaison office head, is also the national security adviser.
Luo, who was appointed in January, embodies the central government’s push for tighter control. While Beijing’s previous top officials had spent considerable time in the city before getting promoted, Luo had minimal experience there.
There is little evidence that Luo speaks much Cantonese, the local Chinese language, and he has kept his distance from the city’s elite. Luo rarely meets with pro-Beijing lawmakers, leaving such talks to his deputy, Ip said.
What he does have is the trust of Xi, who appears to favor Luo as a provincial official with a specialty in cleaning up unruly provinces and wayward cadres.
Luo rose through the party ranks in Anhui, a rural, inland province. When he was transferred to Qinghai province, he pressed forward efforts to absorb the large Tibetan minority into China’s mainstream. Luo later won Xi’s plaudits for purging officials in Shanxi, a coal-rich province where corruption was endemic.
Some now half-jokingly describe Luo as Hong Kong’s Communist Party secretary. That title does not officially exist but conveys the shift under Luo’s watch. In China, the party secretary outranks other local officials.
“The relationship between the liaison office and the Hong Kong government is already likened to a party secretary versus a mayor in China,” said Eliza Lee, a professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong. “That kind of relationship will become increasingly normalized.”
The liaison office’s growing status can be seen in its physical footprint.
The number of properties it owns in the city has tripled over the past three decades to include hundreds of apartment buildings, offices, retail units and parking spots. Reflecting its increased staff in the city, an office subsidiary bought at least 20 residential properties last year, according to Hong Kong records.
It also oversees a publishing company, Sino United, that dominates retail book sales in Hong Kong. At one of its bookstores, a table was piled with titles such as “Hong Kong’s Disturbance,” a collection of reports about the 2019 protests by China’s state news agency, and “The Dawn Breaking Through Hong Kong’s Dark Night” — a reference to the security law.
Newspapers owned by the liaison office, long dismissed as propaganda, are now studied for clues about Beijing’s intentions in Hong Kong. Lately, the newspapers — Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po — have railed against what they call overly lenient judges who have dismissed prosecutions of protesters, and establishment lawmakers have followed with calls for judicial changes, including establishing a council to set sentences.
Late last month, the liaison office convened a meeting with establishment politicians to discuss the legislature’s priorities. According to a meeting summary sent to other members by Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, the office made clear that it wanted to prioritize the “three mountains” of reforming education, the judiciary and social services.
Other officials confirmed the meeting but disputed his characterization, saying the office was simply attempting to canvas views. They also said such meetings were typical, as the liaison office has traditionally helped organize the establishment bloc in the Legislative Council by mediating conflicts and deciding who runs where in elections.
The office’s expanded playbook was clear in Luo’s recent visits to low-income residents. After chatting with one man, a chef who lost his job last year, Luo told his deputies to quickly find him work, according to an office statement.
Such photo ops have been relatively uncommon, and a focus on specific policies and questions of social welfare is even more unusual.
The next day, several pro-Beijing politicians called on the Hong Kong government to expand its support for low-income residents. One of them, Bill Tang, said Hong Kong had not done enough to help the unemployed and cited the central government’s campaign to end poverty in the mainland.
“I really hope that such a spirit can also be on Hong Kong,” Tang said in an interview.
Xu Tianmin, the chef visited by Luo, was thrilled by the attention from Beijing.
On social media, Xu, who arrived from the mainland seven years ago, seems ardently patriotic, rallying against Hong Kong demonstrators and removing protest messages from the so-called Lennon Walls. He told one state-owned newspaper that his pro-government activism was the reason he had lost his last job.
“I never thought that I would be visited,” he told another paper. “I’m so thankful to the liaison office for its concern for residents at the grassroots.”
But in the days after the visit, the glow faded a little. The city’s opposition camp questioned the scripted nature of the visit and reported donations of protective gear to Xu’s hometown.
Xu declined to be interviewed in person, but in a brief exchange over a messaging app, he said he had not yet found full-time work and was still scraping by with temporary construction jobs.
Many people had tried to help him find a job after the news of his meeting, he said. But it was friends who reached out with potential opportunities — not the liaison office.
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