Among Hong Kong’s many claims to fame – along with the world’s highest per-capita consumption of oranges, or the extreme ratio of suicides to road deaths – is the fact that its country’s ruling party does not officially operate within the city and indeed behaves like a clandestine organization in it. Of all the political parties active here it is far and away the most influential and powerful (that’s an understatement), yet it is the one with no phone number, no address, no spokesman constantly on TV and no formal incorporation. The aim of Underground Front by Civic Exchange CEO and former legislator Christine Loh is to ask what the CCP has done in Hong Kong in the past, what it does today, who is in it and whether it would make more sense for the party and its members to come out and work openly.
Essentially, the book is a history of Hong Kong since the 1920s with an emphasis on the CCP’s role. This of course covers not just a local apparatus and membership but a national, centralized Leninist entity; apart from during the Cultural Revolution chaos around 1967, the local organization has always ultimately been controlled by the Politburo. After a helpful summary of the CCP’s organization and the principles of united front work, the book covers specific periods: the party’s early days, through to the Japanese and civil wars, through the disorder of the 1960s, negotiations with the UK, the handover and up to today.
Despite the focus on the party, the story contains little new material, especially for the periods up to the late 1970s. This is not surprising. To the extent that the CCP is a secret organization, it is not going to lift the lid and let Christine Loh have an exclusive look (despite her determination to be moderate and constructive in public life, Beijing classifies her along with so many others as being in the ‘hostile’ camp – if only for who she hangs out with). To the extent that we all know the Central Government Liaison Office in Western is the local CCP HQ, the DAB is today its main local arm, and a whole array of district and labour organizations take orders from it, there is also nothing new to tell. But this is an ideal framework for exploring how the CCP worked to regain control of Hong Kong as 1997 approached and how it has consolidated its grip since and is still doing so.
The party strategy is at best a partial success. The book recounts the CCP’s patient and painstaking cultivation of pro-UK/US/Taiwan business, professional and other targets from the late 1970s onwards. Co-opting the tycoons was a priority: although presumably Marxists, the cadres seemed to feel the rich were the key to Hong Kong’s prosperity. We can now see that this attraction was mutual, and tycoons’ kids are now being absorbed into the ‘insider’ elite. Privileged rural interests, in the form of the Heung Yee Kuk, are also there.
The author also describes how a fifth column of at least 80,000 cadres infiltrated Hong Kong from 1983 through the family reunion immigration system – essentially to pad out a possibly disloyal population. (This would account for many of the complaints about the unfairness of the one-way permit system at the time. Could it also have contributed to employers’ and economists’ complaints about the low quality of workers arriving from the mainland?)
The Hong Kong Chinese, Loh notes, have never had anyone to speak for them. The colonial regime did not fully trust them, but the CCP did much to alienate them – which is why so many of them came to the city in the first place. Bombs in 1967 turned the local patriots into pariahs, with many left unemployable and shunned by the rest of society until being rehabilitated after the handover. The Beijing massacre in 1989 led a million horrified Hongkongers to take to the streets; even local cadres rebelled, and the CCP saw the city and its people as a potential threat. In response, the party demanded post-handover laws against sedition and subversion which, in 2003, had the people out on the streets again, demanding that Beijing remove the chief executive.
Loh gives various reasons for what has essentially been a mishandling of the Hong Kong issue by the CCP. One classic example: misleading reports to Beijing in the 80s that Hongkongers were eager for reunification when in fact they were lining up for foreign passports. She points out that the CCP still today seems incapable of connecting with and understanding local people, and unable to see beyond troublemakers and hostile outsiders (or in recent days, citizens’ inability to “understand”) as the cause.
So here we are, trapped in a pattern. The CCP trusts only a small elite, especially tycoons, and gives them political power through which the party can control Hong Kong. The business elite uses the power to serve its own interests. This arouses opposition and demands for democracy among the majority of the population, which the CCP interprets as a threat to its power. The CCP’s strategy for controlling Hong Kong undermines itself. Loh sees a possible solution in a more open CCP, abandoning the pretence that it is not here and becoming a more normal part of the political scene.
Finishing the book, I found myself fantasizing briefly about showing it to President Hu Jintao or at least Gao Siren, burly boss of the Central Government Liaison Office – Hong Kong’s CCP HQ. I was telling them: “If you want to make friends and influence people, this is a really complicated way of doing it. Why don’t you just try being nice?”