Just two days after the government’s electoral reform package was voted down in the Legislative Council on June 18, at least six of the 31 pro-Beijing legislators who failed to cast their ballot had already approached the central government’s Liaison Office to explain their embarrassing misstep.
The dramatic fallout has shocked the public by unveiling the extensive role played by the Chinese Liaison Office (CLO) in local politics, and has raised concerns regarding Beijing’s continuing interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Article 22 of the territory’s mini-constitution stipulates that “no department of the Central People’s Government” is permitted to “interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law”.
Speaking on RTHK programme City Forum on Sunday, Civic Party leader Alan Leong Ka-kit said that a key point of concern following Thursday’s unanticipated walkout is pro-Beijing legislators’ intimate ties with the CLO.
“When we were sworn in as legislators,” Leong said, “we did not say that we would be accountable to the Liaison Office. Our oath states that we will uphold the Basic Law and be accountable to the people of Hong Kong.”
Leong’s party issued a statement on Friday “strongly condemning” those lawmakers who voluntarily reported to the CLO for violating the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. It warned that the central government’s interference could become the norm if Beijing loyalists do not refrain from such activities.
DAB chairperson Starry Lee Wai-king, however, who was also present at the forum, defended her colleagues by arguing that the visits are “perfectly reasonable and logical”.
“Communication is important. We need to maintain good communications with the Chinese Liaison Office in order to promote [Hong Kong’s] constitutional development,” Lee argued.
Immediately after holding a press conference to explain what had occurred in the chamber, Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung from the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong visited the Liaison Office together with two of his colleagues.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the pro-Beijing camp convened a closed-door meeting and waited until Lam returned before calling their second press conference at 5:00pm, during which they offered an official apology.
Industrial (First) sector legislator Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen also disclosed on Thursday that he would be contacting the CLO to explain the incident. Finance representative Ng Leung-sing and Real Estate and Construction’s Abraham Shek Lai-him reportedly paid lengthy visits to the Liaison Office on Friday.
A mere half hour after the vote, Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien told the press that a senior CLO officer had phoned party leader Vincent Fang Kang, praising Liberal Party lawmakers for voting in favour of the failed reform package.
Industrial (Second) legislator Lam Tai-fai, one of the eight pro-establishment legislators who casted a vote, also admitted to having received a similar phone call from the Liaison Office.
Some of those who did not receive Beijing’s recognition have made their frustrations known to the public. Wong Kwok-kin of the Federation of the Trade Unions said openly that he “feared the Central Government would be angry”.
Regina Ip, who has expressed interest in succeeding Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s next chief executive, broke down in tears on a Commercial Radio programme on Friday. “After putting so much effort over the last 20 months, I really wanted to cast my vote,” the New People’s Party chairperson tearfully lamented.
Both BPA’s Jeffrey Lam and Chan Yuen-han of the Federation of Trade Unions also shed tears before the public, even though Chan did cast a vote after her colleagues’ departure. Several pro-Beijing newspapers reported that a senior DAB member broke down in a private meeting, decrying the incident as the biggest challenge in his 30-year career.
‘A single leader needed’
Michael Tien, deputy chairman of the New People’s Party, was one of the few politicians who came up with concrete suggestions on how to avoid the recurrence of such a fiasco.
In an Apple Daily radio show, Tien boldly suggested that the pro-establishment camp coalesce under the control of “one single leader” or “convener” appointed by the Chinese Liaison Office. At certain key moments, this leader’s words would be equivalent to direct orders from Beijing.
When asked why the leader should be appointed by the CLO instead of the Hong Kong government, Tien said that only the CLO is capable of uniting the pro-Beijing bloc. “When have you seen the whole pro-establishment camp obey the Hong Kong government’s every whim?” he asked.
Tien added that central government would most likely be interested to find out why the pro-Beijing bloc is “only united on the surface” and might hold the Liaison Office accountable, since the CLO is charged with managing the pro-Beijing bloc.
The Chinese government’s “non-interference” policy in Hong Kong affairs ended in 2003, when the largest-ever July 1 pro-democracy rally pressured the SAR government into withdrawing the controversial security bill Article 23 – resulting in the resignation of many officials, including then-Secretary for Security Regina Ip.
When Chief Executive CY Leung was elected in 2012, he is said to have visited the Chinese Liaison Office to express his gratitude for their support, thus confirming his close ties to “Sai Wan”, a euphemism for the CLO drawn from the office’s location.