By Mark Pinkstone – Chief Information Officer for Regina Ip’s campaign

The recent chief executive (CE) election makes one commonly known, but not spoken about, point: It is all controlled by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government.

The whole election protocol is a farce. Half way through 2016, the Central People’s Government decided to anoint chief secretary for administration Carrie Lam as CE to succeed the policies of Leung Chun-ying. And although she appeared coy and uninterested in the job, preferring to look after her family, she knew her destiny was to run Hong Kong. Her future had been foretold.

china liaison office emblem flag
The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

Once that was decided by Beijing, the job of pushing through the process was left to the Liaison Office in The Westpoint, Sai Ying Pun.

Wikipedia states that the Liaison Office exists to promote the pro-Beijing United Front and coordinates pro-Beijing candidates, mobilises supporters to vote for “patriotic” political parties, and clandestinely orchestrates electoral campaigns. It supervises the mainland’s enterprises and three pro-Beijing newspapers, Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Pao and Commercial Daily in Hong Kong. It is also responsible for running the Chinese Communist Party cells in Hong Kong.

But Lam was not a popular civil servant. She was known to be tough and capable of getting the job done but her toughness brought her enemies within the civil service and the public. Her handling of the students in the Occupy Central protests drew grave criticism. The job of the Liaison Office was to mend fences. A gift was needed. During December 2016 Lam made frequent trips to Beijing to discuss “cultural” matters (a diplomatic term for clandestine operations).

On December 23, she returned to Hong Kong with a gift from the Central Government, a HK$3.5 billion replica of the famed Palace Museum. Although Hong Kong people hailed the gift, many criticised the secrecy involved, including the location (replacing a much-needed centre for performing arts) and appointment of the lead architect. The Palace Museum gift was the springboard to Lam’s foray in the CE race.

Then lo and behold within two weeks she announced her decision to resign from the SAR Government and run for the post of CE. Within a week, Mrs Lam’s resignation was accepted. Another contender John Tsang, who resigned as financial secretary a month earlier had to wait in purgatory for its acceptance after Lam. Suddenly the chief executive was abandoned by his generals and had to urgently find replacements to present the 2017/18 Budget and run the administration.

Zhang Xiaoming Carrie Lam
China Liaison Office director Zhang Xiaoming and Carrie Lam.

Meanwhile, two other contenders – former Judge Woo Kwok-hing and legislator Regina Ip – announced their intentions to run in mid-December. Woo has no alliance with any political group and has been basically advocating for political reform. Ip, on the other hand, has wide political experience having served on both the Legislative and Executive Councils, formed a political party – the New People’s Party – and had a long civil service history finishing as secretary for security. Overall, she had the best credentials of all. However the public still remembered her failed attempts for security reforms.

But the Liaison Office was not happy with Tsang and Ip joining the race as both threatened the success of Lam. They offered Tsang the job as CEO of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launched by the Central Government. He declined, preferring to run for CE. Ip was offered the presidency of the Legislative Council and posts in Beijing but she too declined, preferring the CE job. The Liaison Office had come to a stalemate; neither of the threats would quit the race.

The propaganda machine came into play. National People’s Congress delegates – former secretary for justice and deputy chair of the Basic Law Drafting Committee Elsie Leung, provisional president of the Legislative Council in 1997 Rita Fan and others – publicly restated, under instructions of the Liaison Office, Beijing’s desire that there shall be only two or three candidates for the chief executive post. One had to go.

The biggest threat to Lam was Ip because of her experience and thorough manifesto so she was the obvious choice to be thrown under the bus. The pressure was on. Phone calls from the Liaison Office or associates were made to every member of the nominating committee not to nominate Ip and to give their weight to Lam.

Legislator Michael Tien, deputy to Ip, spoke publicly about a call from the “invisible hand” (the Liaison Office) to give support to Lam. Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok, co-ordinator of 300+ pan democratic votes said on TVB’s Straight Talk that he had heard of many such reports of calls from the Invisible Hand. Ip said she had calls from friends who wanted to support her but were told by their bosses not to.

regina ip
Photo: Regina Ip, via Facebook.

All candidates were canvassing hard in the run-up to the nominating period. During her 77-day campaign, Ip met with 137 election committee members, non-government and various other organisations, attended 21 forums, 49 public events, 45 media interviews and produced a 20,000-word manifesto. Tsang and Woo took to the streets raising their public profiles and Tsang, in fact, secured much more popular support than Lam.

Lam, on the other hand, relied solely on the Liaison Office and her campaign team to secure about 400 nominations before releasing her manifesto two days before the close of nominations. At the close on March 1, Lam had received 580 votes, Woo 180 and Tsang 165. Ip withdrew just before the close due to lack of nominations. The Liaison Office had won.

On March 16, the SCMP reported that Beijing’s No. 3 official persuaded the powerful Li Ka-shing family, previously believed to be supporters of John Tsang, to back the former chief secretary. The Post quoted a source with knowledge of the matter saying that Li and his tycoon sons, Victor Li Tzar-kuoi and Richard Li Tzar-kai, shared a meal with National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang in Shenzhen last month. During the gathering the three were asked to cast their ballots for Lam and they agreed to back the former chief secretary, who is Beijing’s preferred candidate.

Almost every weekend prior to the elections clandestine meetings were held in Shenzhen with Beijing officials, members of the Hong Kong Liaison Office and election committee members to discuss the outcome of the March 26 chief executive elections. No names were ever mentioned for fear of reprisal.

So the elections were held and Beijing pulled off the 777 jackpot with its chosen winner. No surprises there.

election 2017 chief executive carrie lam
Photo: GovHK.

Under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 22 : “No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

The Liaison Office has clearly violated Article 22 by interfering with the election process, and the Central Government has lost all trust of the Hong Kong people in maintaining the One Country Two Systems principle.

Mark Pinkstone is an Australian journalist with 50 years experience in Hong Kong newspapers, magazines and with the Hong Kong government. He previously served as Chief Information Officer with the Government Secretariat prior to 1997, and as head of the government's overseas public relations section.