At last – an outbreak of honesty from a senior Chinese official who has openly started to talk about the Communist Party’s role in Hong Kong.

Although everyone with half a brain knows that the party is the pivotal force controlling Hong Kong and that the party and its members are the people who matter, the role of the party is rarely discussed, or even acknowledged.

So, hats off to Wang Zhenmin, the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office legal department in Hong Kong, who was speaking at a National Constitution Day forum this week.

Wang Zhenmin. File Photo: Apple Daily.

What Wang had to say was refreshingly blunt, albeit un-refreshingly worrying.

Hong Kong, he said, must recognise that it is part of “red China” and needs to be fully invested in the Communist Party and its leadership.

Remarkably, in many ways, no senior official has ever said this before. Ask Hong Kong officials about the party’s role in the SAR’s affairs and they change the subject, or deny any knowledge, or simply lie and say that the local government deals only with the state institutions and not the party.

In a one-party state the government is synonymous with the party and the party runs the state. That much is obvious, but it is quite amazing to see the lengths that local officials will go to avoid any mention of the party.

19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress. Photo: Screenshot.

Some of them are in fact party members, or if not members belong to that echelon of close associates whom the party finds convenient to exclude from membership on grounds of plausible deniability.

From the early days of the Chinese Communist Party’s existence there has been a web of united front bodies that serve the party but stand slightly apart from it; membership of these bodies, particularly in the labour sector, is relatively high in Hong Kong.

Although the existence of the Hong Kong branch of the Communist Party, previously and cumbersomely known as the Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee in Hong Kong, is unlawful (because there is no legal provision for the establishment of political parties: they all have to register themselves as companies), it clearly exists.

The party has its two main local newspapers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Po, plus its own schools, cultural organisations, including a leftist film studio, plus housing and welfare groups and, of course, trade unions. All these groupings are operated within the united front framework where the bulk of the members are not party members but control remains firmly in party hands.

DAB members campaign in 2015. File photo: Apple Daily.

Then there is the curious case of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), humorously called the ‘Communist Party in drag’ because it was formed to give the party a political face albeit behind a veil. Many leaders of the DAB are not party members, indeed its current leader Starry Lee probably has no party card. But this does not mean that the Communist Party is not pulling the strings.

The covert operations of the local Communist Party add to the confusion over the party’s role in Hong Kong. Indeed it seems likely that this high level of ambiguity suits the party bosses, who are mainly interested in control and like to have many forms of control at their disposal, not all of them transparent.

The speech by Comrade Wang is part of the process of making that level of control far more visible. China’s leaders were reluctant to do this in the past because they rightly perceived a high level of antagonism towards the party in Hong Kong, not least because the bulk of the population came here or are descended from families who crossed the border to avoid living under Communism.

Tung Chee-hwa signing a bill as the chief executive in 1997. File Photo: GovHK.

The party therefore was happy to use surrogates, such as the first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a reassuringly rich son of rich parents, to assure Hong Kong people that being wealthy was fully in line with party policy.

What has changed and changed without ambiguity when Xi Jinping spoke about Hong Kong at the recent Communist Party Congress? Beijing has got fed up with the high level of dissidence in the SAR and is much more inclined to show the iron fist that used to be concealed by the velvet glove.

Therefore more frank discussion about the Communist Party and its control of Hong Kong can be expected. It will be fascinating to see whether the SAR’s prominent party members will then reveal their membership.


Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse.