The unexpected appointment of undersecretary Lau Kong-wah to the post of home affairs minister has evoked mixed reactions.

While analysts and pan-democrats have highlighted Lau’s affiliation to a pro-Beijing political party, the pro-Beijing bloc said they were confident in his ability to run the bureau with impartiality.

The 58-year-old politician was a legislator for the pro-Beijing DAB party from 1998 to 2012, and became an undersecretary for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau in 2012 after losing in that year’s legislative election.

Lau’s monthly salary now amounts to HK$298,000 – HK$110,000 more than his salary as undersecretary and 11 times that of his district councillor wage in 2012.

lau kong wah
The Home Affairs Bureau updated its website as soon as the appointment was announced to the public on Tuesday.

Lee Cheuk-yan of the Labour Party told local newspaper Ming Pao that Lau’s affiliation with the DAB might pose a conflict of interest, because the home affairs bureau controls most of the public resources for district work.

Hong Kong’s largest political party, the DAB offers services and gifts to local communities, which translate into voter support in district and legislative elections.

“[Lau’s post] is very significant, because there are a lot of tunnelling activities going on between the bureau and district-level groups,” said Lee. “The [new] home affairs minister will probably side with the pro-establishment camp even more.”

Part of the bureau’s job is to work with district-level groups, provide funds for district works projects and coordinate the provision of public services across all 18 districts, according to the home affairs website.

Social sciences professor Chung Kim-wah of Polytechnic University reportedly said that given Lau’s ties with community services groups, his appointment would help Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying solicit support from grassroots communities in the upcoming elections.

Poverty alleviation and livelihood issues were billed as top priorities on Leung’s platform when he ran for chief executive in 2012, but he has been widely criticised by community leaders for failing to fulfil his promises and promoting interests of the rich and powerful.

lau kong-wah cy leung hong kong
Lau Kong-wah swore in at 2012 inauguration ceremony. Photo: GovHK.

Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan Ka-lok questioned Lau’s lack of experience in home affairs, which encompasses a variety of work including district administration, youth, sports, arts and culture, and building management.

Since becoming a legislator in 1998, Lau has never sat on the LegCo home affairs panel. As constitutional affairs undersecretary, Lau was charged with promoting an unpopular political reform package that was eventually voted down last month.

During last year’s Occupy protests, Lau and three high-level officials, including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, spoke with student leaders at a televised meeting. He was widely mocked for being the only official who did not speak in the two-hour meeting.

“What does his appointment indicate? Is this the Home Affairs Bureau, or the DAB Bureau?” Chan asked.

There are now four DAB members among the politically appointed officials: economic development minister Gregory So Kam-leung and his political assistant, and Lau’s political assistant, Caspar Tsui, who was a vice chairman for the DAB’s youth group in 2007.

Lau Kong-wah rubbish bin hong kong DAB
Lau Kong-wah’s nickname among supporters of democracy, “rubbish bin”, comes from a widely circulated image of his banner.

New People’s Party lawmaker Regina Ip reportedly agreed that Lau’s appointment might make the government appear “pro-DAB”.

But Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said on Tuesday that the government had “[picked] the best person for the position” and Lau was “well experienced at district work”.

DAB lawmaker Ip Kwok-him reportedly said that Lau was experienced and capable and that he believed Lau would perform his new duties impartially.

Holden Chow, vice chairman of the DAB, dismissed the concerns, saying that transportation minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung was also a Democratic Party member. He asked, “Has that made Cheung’s policy lean towards the Democratic Party?”

Lau was first elected to LegCo in 1991 as a member of the United Democrats, which later became the Democratic Party. But he left the party in the same year after facing disciplinary action for attacking colleagues during the campaign.

Lau joined the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong in 1998 and became a member of Hong Kong’s core policy making body for the chief executive in 2008.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.