The occasion was a keynote speech by Luo Huining, who heads the central government’s Liaison Office here. He was addressing an audience of ranking Hong Kong officials to mark the founding of China’s Communist Party and the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. Both events, in 1921 and 1997 respectively, are celebrated on July 1.

Official accounts here are now also heralding a third historic event, namely, the first full day of Hong Kong life under national security rule. Beijing promulgated the National Security Law not long before midnight on June 30, 2020 and it went into effect immediately.

Director of the Liaison Office Luo Huining. Photo: GovHK screenshot.

Always until now, Hongkongers have grown accustomed to referring to their post-colonial sovereign in general terms like “Beijing,” or the “central government,” or simply “the Centre.” 

For a time, when there was still good humour in the political atmosphere, they also sometimes referred to Beijing as “lao ye” — meaning the old man or gentleman or grandfather. In this context, the term was meant to signify an elder whose authority might be fading as younger members of the family began taking charge but whose eccentricities had to be respected, nonetheless. 

 These terms are actually in line with the old custom whereby communist parties in disputed territories do not “come out” until these places have turned from white to red – meaning after the revolutionary struggle has been won and the party can safely emerge from underground to assume its leading role. 

Since post-1997 Hong Kong was formally designated an autonomous region, it was not openly declared to be under direct communist party rule. Some discussions about the formation of Hong Kong’s first post- 1997 delegation to the National People’s Congress even explained that because Hong Kong was still “white” territory, the delegation would have to be selected somewhat differently than those representing China’s ordinary provinces.

And no one has yet said anything about Hong Kong’s still secret underground party branch emerging from the shadows to acknowledge its leaders and members and the role it has been playing here all along. Luo Huining’s June 12 speech marked the first time an official has given such open and direct credit to the party’s leadership in Hong Kong affairs.

Centennial Celebrations

Director Luo began by saying the central government’s representatives in Hong Kong – there are now several besides the leading Liaison Office — were pleased to join local government dignitaries on this historic occasion. Together they were celebrating the party’s historic and direct role in advancing the cause of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” governing principle under Chinese rule.

He then presented a comprehensive overview celebrating not Beijing’s or the central government’s role in the Hong Kong success story but that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He recounted how the party had pioneered the “one country, two systems” governing formula before 1997, then promoted its cause in the years afterward, and finally defended it against what he termed the falsehoods and distortions that led to the popular unrest of 2019.

The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

A hundred years ago when its Communist Party was founded, China was under threat from foreign colonial powers. Its people were living in poverty and despair. Since then, under the party’s leadership, the Chinese people have stood up and prospered and the country has grown strong. Hong Kong has born witness to this journey and Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” experiment is an important chapter in its progression, was his theme. 

 Luo then proceeded to give the party credit for every step forward along that journey. The party pioneered the concept of “one country, two systems” and then acted to apply it by: leading in the formulation of Hong Kong’s post-1997 legal framework known as the Basic Law; designing the institutions for governance; and creating China’s first Special Administrative Region. The Basic Law was drafted in the late 1980s under Beijing’s direction and with the guidance of then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The law was promulgated by Beijing in 1990.

 Luo lauded the courage it took to bring the two systems, socialism and capitalism, together in one governing construct. It was responsible, he said, for the smooth return of Hong Kong in 1997. He credited the party’s preeminent role and the wisdom of Deng for the decisions that made it all possible.

 But as always, the “two systems” even in Luo’s account were defined as socialism and capitalism, not dictatorship and democracy. It was party terminology but also the same gloss- over that has always obscured the full political implications of the “two systems” formula.

 One system was under full and direct Communist Party leadership, the other was promised a “high degree of autonomy.” This lack of clarity did much to ease pre-1997 tensions. Towards that same end, “setting hearts at ease” was one of the phrases officially popularised before 1997. Another was “Fifty years without change.” 

This last derived from the Basic Law’s Article 5 that promised China’s “socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

The careful choice of words may have calmed nerves before 1997, but it also set the stage for three full decades of misunderstandings, from 1990 until June 30, 2020. Luo did not acknowledge the misunderstandings, as such. 

‘Unify China using One Country Two Systems.’ File photo: inmediahk.net via C.C.2.0.

Nor did he speak about Beijing’s persistent failure to explain the definitional confusion as arguments over “autonomy” and “genuine” universal suffrage elections escalated from one decade to the next. Instead, Luo blamed falsehoods and distortions, or what in less formal presentations are branded as “fake news.”

 “Is there any other ruling party in the world that allows the coexistence of two such different social systems within one country?” Luo asked. This model disproved the conventional wisdom that colonies could only be retaken by force. It demonstrated the party’s political wisdom and “contributes a splendid China chapter to the history of political civilisation.”

The party then acted after 1997, to promote the cause of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” innovation in many ways. These initiatives included both economics and culture but were most significant in the political realm. This last consolidated Beijing’s leadership and imposed the correct formulation of the governing principle as challenges arose.

The party “properly handled the relationship between maintaining the comprehensive jurisdiction of the central government and safeguarding the high degree of autonomy” granted to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

On the basis of this relationship — between Beijing’s comprehensive jurisdiction and Hong Kong’s autonomy — there had been five interpretations of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, clarifying matters of its implementation on Beijing’s terms. 

In this regard there also followed, last year, Beijing’s imposition on Hong Kong of the national security law and this year’s promulgation of an electoral overhaul. The latter is purportedly designed to strengthen the constitutional foundation of the “one country, two systems” governing formula.

Photo: GovHK.

In other realms since 1997, the party has overseen the affirmation of mainland backing for Hong Kong by helping it weather two financial crises, as well as two major cross-border public health challenges. These were the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, and the current coronavirus pandemic. Luo did not acknowledge the mainland origin of either disease.

Most recently, the party has defended the cause of “one country, two systems” in the face of its most serious challenge yet, namely, that created by the 2019 protests and unrest. This began as a protest against the extradition bill proposed by the administration of Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. 

For a time, said Luo, it seemed like touch-and-go as to whether the “one country, two systems” principle could survive. But the CCP Central Committee, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, saved the day by imposing the new rules for national security and overhauling the electoral system. 

Luo concluded by pointing the way forward. First, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is essential for safeguarding “one country, two systems.” Second, implementation of the formula must be continuously improved, as it has been up to now. Finally, to safeguard “one country, two systems,” it is also imperative to promote the ongoing integration of Hong Kong into the nation’s development strategy.

BUT CAN THE PARTY’S ROLE BE FULLY ACKNOWLEDGED? 

Following the old rules of revolutionary struggle, the party has surely succeeded in defeating the challenge to its authority and has now said so in no uncertain terms. National party leaders have come out to claim credit for all aspects of Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule: from the initial 1980s Sino-British negotiations to the suppression of the 2019 challenge and the current national security clampdown. 

But the continuous refrain is still “one country, two systems,” and Beijing’s full definition of what that means in practice remains unspecified, along with the definitions of socialism and capitalism. 

This photo taken on June 30, 2021 shows two children raising their arms in a salute under a sea of Hong Kong and Chinese flags. Photo: Michael Ho/Studio Incendo.

Perhaps the old rules will no longer apply in this case. Even though the Communist Party is now claiming credit for everything, maybe Luo’s insistence on speaking only in terms of “one country, two systems” means party leaders have decided it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie for now and for underground branch members to remain unidentified, as they have always been. The full transformation from white to red need not be proclaimed in this case, if Beijing’s authority can be exercised by other means, while remaining obscured by the “one-country, two systems” formality.

In a follow-up on Luo’s speech, South China Morning Post writer Gary Cheung recalled the 1995 Legislative Council debate initiated by Christine Loh amid much controversy on the folly of raising such a question at so sensitive a time. She initiated the same debate again two years later — to ask the very question that Luo finally addressed in his June 12 speech — about what role the Communist Party would play here after 1997. 

Loh later became one of the few high-profile democrats who left their old political concerns behind and went to work for the other side. Like Anthony Cheung, she joined the 2012-17 administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. 

Christine Loh. File Photo: GovHK.

But in the meantime, she took to heart the flak she had received in the late 1990s — blasting her ignorance about China’s political system — and wrote a book about it. Titled Underground Front, it focused on the history of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong and was published by the University of Hong Kong Press in 2010, with an updated edition in 2018.

There had been some concern in pro-Beijing circles before the 2010 publication of Loh’s book. What secrets had she unearthed and how many might she reveal? For example, it was widely rumored that Jasper Tsang Yok-sing was a party member. Later it was rumoured that he had not joined the 2012 contest for Hong Kong Chief Executive because of his party membership and the need to keep up “two systems” appearances. 

Journalists and others have often asked him directly about the rumours. He has always evaded the question without ever stating whether he is or is not a party member.

In her book, Loh evaded the key question in a similar way — by focusing not on the branch itself but on Beijing’s well-known open political role here. Before 1997, its interests were represented by the Hong Kong branch of the New China News Agency (NCNA), and afterwards by the central government’s Liaison Office. 

The local NCNA branch had doubled as Beijing’s representative in order to avoid the formal recognition of British colonial rule that would be implied by allowing official mainland representation here. The unacknowledged “underground” CCP Hong Kong branch took cover within both the agency and the office of what later became known as Xinhua.

Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong by Christine Loh. Photo: Human Rights in China.

Above ground, the branch led the work of two major pro-Beijing organisations, one a political party and the other a trade union. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), organized in the early 1990s, can now boast a membership of 44,000 and is by far the largest political party here. 

 The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), dating from the late 1940s, claims affiliated union membership of over 400,000, including both blue- and white-collar workers. The DAB and the FTU both take part in local elections and their representatives have regularly won seats in the Legislative Council. 

Tsang Yok-sing was founding chairman of the DAB but his outgoing manner sets him apart from other pro-Beijing politicians. No member of the DAB or the FTU has ever acknowledged membership of the CCP.

As for the local underground branch itself, Loh joined everyone else in reporting that its membership remained unclear. She cited only the old 1980s figures attributed to ranking party member Xu Jiadun, who served as NCNA director at that time. 

Xu revealed that in the 1980s, the party’s local branch — known as the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee — had something like over 6,000 members. A little more than half were locals. The others were mainlanders, like Xu himself, working here in various capacities at the news agency and in commercial enterprises.

DAB party thanking people’s support after the 2011 District Council Election. Photo: Facebook/DAB Tuen Mun Branch.

Xu had sympathized with the 1989 occupiers of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He fled into exile when Beijing began settling accounts with those in its Hong Kong establishment whose loyalty seemed to waver after the June 4 crackdown that cleared the square by military force that year. The Work Committee figures were cited by Xu in his memoirs, written after he left Hong Kong and took up residence in California. They were published in Taiwan in 1993.

The number of party members must be much greater now but the same arrangements continue. After 1997, the NCNA branch went back to being an ordinary news agency and its role as representative of the central government was transferred to the new Liaison Office. 

Almost everything about its internal work remains unclear, including especially details about the local CCP branch. Since Director Luo continued to emphasise the “one country, two systems” principle throughout his address, perhaps the CCP branch he heads here is not yet ready to emerge from its undercover workplace.

When that time comes, party members will have to be ready to accept the consequences and responsibilities of public recognition in the manner of their mainland counterparts. Given Hong Kong’s current political atmosphere, probably most hope that day will come later rather than sooner.


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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.