Wednesday, August 28, 2019

From the shadows, China’s Communist Party mobilises against Hong Kong protests

27 August, 2019

HONG KONG — Across the border from Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party screams its presence with banners and slogans on nearly every street. Yet in the former British colony, where China’s ruling party confronts what it calls a “life and death” struggle against a turbulent protest movement, it is invisible: It is not registered and has no publicly declared local members.

But in Hong Kong, this officially nonexistent organisation is in the vanguard of defending Chinese rule in the face of its biggest public resistance since the authoritarian leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The party, operating in the shadows through individuals and organisations, is driving an increasingly firm pushback against the anti-government protests, now in their 13th week.

Parroting slogans scripted by the Communist Party on the mainland, activists in a host of local pro-China organisations have mobilised to discredit the protesters as violent hooligans bent on wrecking the city.

It is a message supported by the party’s main proxy in the territory, the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, which formally represents the Chinese government.

They mostly ignore the huge peaceful protests and focus instead on the periodic clashes between small bands of protesters and police officers, who this weekend fired rounds of tear gas and used water cannon trucks for the first time against brick-throwing demonstrators.

Representatives of 15 pro-Beijing business groups and associations linked to Chinese provinces gathered recently in a Hong Kong office block to take turns reciting pledges of support for China. They then stood together, pumping their fists and chanting in unison: “Stop the violence, end the turmoil.”

The event was organised by the Fujian Hometown Association, which represents immigrants to Hong Kong from Fujian, an eastern Chinese province, and their descendants.

The association has no formal links to the Communist Party, which in Hong Kong has operated covertly since it put down roots with just seven members nearly a century ago, under British rule. Colonial authorities outlawed the party, which took power in Beijing in 1949, but tolerated its existence, so long as it stayed out of sight.

By the time China took back the city in 1997, the underground party apparatus had grown to include thousands of members and many thousands of supporters outside its formal ranks. Mobilisation efforts have increased since, reaching a fever pitch in recent days as groups like the Fujian association have plunged into politics, rallying members to denounce the protest movement.

That the party itself has stayed in the background reflects China’s effort to resolve a fundamental question at the heart of “one country, two systems,” the formula under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule: How does a highly authoritarian one-party state assert its influence in a politically diverse, freewheeling city without making it “one country, one system”?

The party’s answer has been to operate out of the Central Liaison Office. Its director, Mr Wang Zhimin, and his deputy are both former party officials in Fujian.

The office’s most important, and least known, duties include supervising a covert network of Communist Party members and coordinating the activities of groups involved in what the party calls the United Front.

The United Front effort in Hong Kong began during China’s civil war in the 1930s, with the aim of attracting as many Hong Kongers as possible to the party’s camp.

Individuals and organisations in this loose alliance, while not necessarily pro-communist, have rallied to the party’s side out of opportunism or a shared patriotic commitment to making China prosperous and powerful. It has also at times included gangsters, who attacked protesters and passengers with metal bars at a railway station on the Kowloon Peninsula late last month.

The Fujian association’s chairman, businessman Chau On Ta Yuen, 60, denied being a member of Hong Kong’s underground Communist Party — an organisation he insisted had never existed.

All the same, Chau said: “Of course I love the Communist Party. It has done so many good things.” Particularly good, he said, is the latitude it has given Hong Kong to make money. Without stability, he added, “there is no way to do business.”

Mr Chau does, however, sit on the standing committee of a top body in mainland China that advises the central government — seats on which are often given out as political rewards.

This month, Mr Chau was one of more than 400 prominent pro-China figures in Hong Kong summoned to Shenzhen, a city across the border. At the meeting, Chinese officials including the director of the liaison office, who is a member of the party’s Central Committee, said that Beijing wanted its allies in the city to help resist “the turmoil.”

Ten days after the meeting in Shenzhen, Mr Chau’s Fujian association and other groups that formed the Great Alliance to Protect Hong Kong, a new umbrella organisation, responded to Beijing’s calls by holding a counter protest. Its rally in mid-August drew tens of thousands of people to a park near the headquarters of China’s military garrison.

“It is a massive PR exercise to bring people on side,” said Ms Christine Loh, a former government official and the author of “Underground Front,” a book on the party’s methods in Hong Kong.

The pro-China camp had a single, insistent message: The protests must stop.

Mr Edmund W. Cheng, a scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University who has studied the party’s operations in the city, said efforts to shift public opinion against the protests have been crimped by widespread distrust of the party.

Many nominally independent “patriotic” groups in Hong Kong, for instance, are regarded with suspicion and thought of as front organisations that take orders from Beijing.

Much of this suspicion dates to the colonial period, when the underground party orchestrated a campaign of rioting and bombings in 1967. The violence so revolted the public, already wary of Mao Zedong’s revolution, that even many who considered themselves patriots came to see the Communist Party as sinister and dangerous.

British authorities stepped up surveillance of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, which was the liaison office’s predecessor as party coordinator and Beijing’s de facto consulate, and raided the homes of suspected party members.

In the half-century since, the party has slowly repaired the damage and restarted the work of its United Front, while remaining hidden.

By choosing continued secrecy, however, the party merely transferred suspicions onto China’s liaison office and prominent pro-China figures that it supports, like Mr Leung Chun-ying, once the city’s top official, who has denied frequent accusations that he is a covert member.

The office was besieged at least once this summer by protesters, who see it as a symbol of the mainland’s hidden influence.

“The United Front has never been very useful in getting real organic support in Hong Kong,” said Samson Yuen, a scholar at Lingnan University who studies Hong Kong social movements.


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