Chris Maden pens a letter to Luo Huining – the new director of the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, and Xia Baolong – the new director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing.
Dear Mr Luo and Mr Xia,
Welcome to the world’s most amazing city. From a barren rock for foreign pirates, Hong Kong has become a global hub of the arts, one of the world’s top financial centres, and a beacon of China’s potential. It has one of the world’s best-educated populations, a higher GDP per capita than all but four of America’s 51 states, and one of the most vibrant civil societies anywhere.
And, as I’m sure you’re aware, Hong Kong has been in the world’s newspapers for none of these reasons.
You, Mr. Luo, have the reputation of being a trouble-shooter. Your services are urgently needed. The Hong Kong I love, my home for almost my entire adult life, is in trouble. I am not going to waste your time by allocating blame; there will be many around you who are all too willing to do that. I am, rather, going to suggest the conditions under which you yourself can form your own balanced judgement on who and what is to blame.
There is a Chinese fable about a frog in the well. The frog is happy in the well: it has water, no predators, and the well is slimy and damp – a perfect home for a frog. There is a small circle of sky above the frog: sometimes a little sunlight comes in, sometimes rain falls. And the frog goes through its life without knowing that there’s much more outside the well, in the world. But the world outside is much bigger than the frog thinks. Once the frog comes out of the well, there may be an initial period of discomfort, but that discomfort is swiftly overcome by the brightness of truth.
The overwhelming impression I have – and I hope I am wrong – is that the Liaison Office is the frog in the well. Even worse, the well is of the Liaison Office’s own construction. So getting out of the well is not going to be easy.
A well is lined by a wall. The first layer of stones in the Liaison Office’s wall is the United Front. These are the people whom the Liaison Office – your office, Mr. Luo – relies upon to tell it what’s outside the well: your eyes and your ears. Yet the people of the United Front are a treacherous and duplicitous lot. It was once said of the Song sisters that one loved money, one loved power and one loved China. The United Front consists of people who may believe they love China and act as though they love China, but who for the most part would choose money and power.
If this sounds like an ad hominem attack, look no further than the cars they – and, more importantly, their children – drive, the positions they hold, and the passports they carry. These people have no idea what it’s like to take public transport or live in public housing. Their children study in the West and get cushy jobs with Western investment banks on the backs of their parents’ connections. At the first sign of trouble, such as coronavirus, they’re on the first flight to the place they call home: the US.
With “patriots” like these, China does not need enemies. These self-proclaimed but false patriots do not tell you, the Liaison Office, the facts that you need to hear; instead, they tell you whatever will advance their own interests. This, they have done to great effect since the Return of Sovereignty: 20 years ago, Hong Kong had one or two of the world’s richest people; it now has over a dozen.
The next layer of stones in the well of your own making is the nexus of power between the government and your own Liaison Office. There are said to be over a thousand people in your office, yet nobody has the remotest idea about what they do. It is widely assumed in the community that Liaison Office staff is instrumental in forming and executing government policy. It is also widely assumed that this operates at all levels, from the macro-economic to the mundane, from land reclamation to the allocation of parking places.
But, just as the frog in the well lives in perpetual shadow, your staff operates in the shadows. The only light they see and the only rain they receive are from the United Front, who choose which facts and opinions they drop into the well. `Seek truth from the facts’ is the basis of all trouble-shooting: those inside the well, your Liaison Office, have access to only those facts that the United Front’s false patriots, power-brokers and hangers-on feed you.
This leads to a deeper problem. The well is a safe place. Just as the frog has no need to fear predators so long as it stays in the well, your staff need not fear the ICAC. They are free to offer and receive favours; barter power for prestige, inside information for investment opportunities for their family and friends. The well, remember, is slimy as well as dark.
But the corruption here goes deeper than insider information traded for favours. The type of corruption which this type of system engenders is a corruption of the very purpose of a people’s government. Whether government is along the Western lines of being directed by the people for the people, or the Chinese lines of being by the CCP for the people, any non-feudal conception of government agrees that the government is ultimately for the people.
The well which the Liaison Office has built for itself engenders a feudal system, whereby government is for the benefit of an elite: the United Front, who manipulate your staff in the Liaison Office in such a way as to dictate government policy that falls in that elite’s favour. This is a perversion of the very core of the People’s Republic. Albeit with the best of intentions, the Liaison Office has been sucked into a system that is neither the people’s nor a republic.
The sad thing is that, by constructing this well for itself, the Liaison Office denies itself its legitimate role in policy formation in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. It is both natural and obvious that China should be involved with policy formation: to suppose otherwise would be plain daft.
So, Mr Luo, I urge you to come out of your well. Dismantle the nexus of power in the shadows between the United Front, your own staff and Hong Kong’s government. The worst outcome couldn’t be worse than it already is, and the best, though perhaps scary at first, may shine the light of unvarnished truth on the situation you face. Only then can you shoot Hong Kong’s troubles. I hope you succeed.