Review: ‘Underground Front – The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong’ by Christine Loh

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?”

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12 Responses to Review: ‘Underground Front – The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong’ by Christine Loh

  1. Bigot says:

    Save your breath, Hemmy. Why would I want to make friends with or be influenced by someone who has a quaint hairdo, wears boring dark suits an ridiculous ties, never smiles, speaks tersely and lacks a sense of humor?

    Second thought, if only that bloke is willing to give me lots of candies and toys …

  2. On Da Lo says:

    What I would like to know is how many of those suicides were actually pedestrians struck by out-of-control taxis or minibuses?

  3. Historian says:

    An fairly interesting book if not exactly a page-turner. A bit tough on the Brits though, I thought. Perhaps trying to add a bit of patriot-cred to avoid accusatons of being controlled by ‘foreign influsences’. Tiananmen Square Massacre is also downgraded to a crackdown. Also, any author that employs research assistants (as mentioned in the acknowledgements) is only as reliable as said helpers, in my opinion.

  4. Dan the Man says:

    Let’s face it. The real Hong Kong Marxists don’t belong to the CCP. They belong to the LSD. Or the April 5th Action Group.

    You’re right that it would be incredibly easy for the CCP to crush the Hong Kong Democratic Resistance – just hand out more money to the poor and middle class and give the people more free things. Perhaps the CCP could even beat up some tycoons. But I don’t think that will ever happen. Perhaps it’s because of Northern snobbery toward the Cantonese. Perhaps it’s because the Northerners who dominate the CCP don’t understand Cantonese. But certainly one of the reasons is because the CCP doesn’t like being challenged. Every time the HK Democratic Resistance does something more outlandish against the HK government or the CCP, the CCP gets angrier. And there’s no way to get the CCP to change its ways.

    My own guess is sooner or later the conflict between the HK Democratic Resistance and the CCP will come to a head and we will know who wins. You can already see this happening with the recent political persecutions of Christina Chan and now Long Hair and others. The only real chance genuine democracy can occur in Hong Kong (they aren’t going to give democracy to Hong Kong willingly) is if the CCP continues to act as stupidly as it is acting now and this causes hundreds of thousands of HKers to be so angry they are willing to surround the liaison office and demand democracy. When that happens the question will be whether or not the CCP would be willing to send the PLA to Hong Kong and exercise direct control of it militarily.

  5. Dr Palmerston says:

    Your analysis is flawed and biased.

    The essential role of the CCP in Hong Kong is not subversive, secret or manipulative.

    It is COLONIAL.

    The fact that this is merely a continuation of British rule is unpalatable to you, it seems.

    All the actions you cite – pandering to the tycoons and having a Fifth Column of imported cadres find echoes in the British attitude and actions in Hong Kong.

    For example, were the British civil servants and policemen any better than local ‘cadres’ and the brats of the British, Jardine Johnnies and spooks included, any better than the sons of the CCP?

    As for political parties, I wonder how many drinks Martin Lee took with the Governors and how many barristers were urged to join the Democrats to get ahead in their profession.

  6. Sir Crispin says:

    Bigot, your statement:

    “…someone who has a quaint hairdo, wears boring dark suits an ridiculous ties, never smiles, speaks tersely and lacks a sense of humor?”

    describes about 99% of people in HK working in finance!

  7. Chanboy says:

    Hong Kong needs more people like Christine Loh. Right on, Christine. We need more people to explore Hong Kong’s uncomfortable and inconvienient truths.

  8. Dannerman says:

    What do you mean by “being tough on Brits”, you think the Brits are perfect and saintly beings? The days of “white men’s burden” is long gone, pal. Sure, the Brits did contribute to the SAR’s prosperity and development by providing the rule of law, education and healthcare. But fundamentally, they were a colonial regime. They owe their paychecks to London, not from the local people. Why do you think Britain never granted Hong Kong democracy? It was to safeguard the elite tycoon interest. But what is in the interest of certain tycoons may not be in the interest of local people as a whole.

    And what’s with the attack on “research assistants”? Academic projects requires assistants these days.

  9. Historian says:

    Sorry, but your hastily written, ill-thought-out and angry overreaction to my comment is unworthy of a response.

  10. Dannerman says:

    My apologies, Historian, if I hurted your feelings. But Dr. Palmerston is right, it’s a colonial mode of operation in HK, both for the Brits and now the CCP, only the CCP prefers to operate even more in the shadows, and they are even less open to public opinion. At least the Brits were accountable to London which is in turn accountable to the electorate.

  11. Not Ted Thomas says:

    I remember the Brits in pre-1997 Hong Kong: insular, provincial, pompous and bad teeth. Wonder where they are now.

  12. Sam says:


    Many of them are serving as token gweilo non-executive directors of locally listed firms with pretensions of Western-styled corporate governance.

    The remainder are in Malta or Derbyshire.

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