Communist ideologues waiting in the wings for handover

Stephen Vines examines the extensive `white work' carried out by party cadres in Hong Kong
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The Independent Online
Hong Kong - Deng Xiaoping never realised his dream of visiting Hong Kong under Chinese rule; but in 1931 he came down to the colony during the civil war and contacted the clandestine Communist Party.

This year, Hong Kong returns to China. It is a safe bet that the real inner core of the Chinese Communist Party will remain underground after the transfer of power. It is equally safe to assume, official denials not withstanding, that the party will step up its activity.

The party has been in Hong Kong for some five decades although it rarely, if ever, shows a public face. Its power centre lies in an austere marble- clad building near the Hong Kong Jockey Club. At the centre of the Communist web is the New China News Agency (NCNA). The NCNA, or Xinhua, combines the roles of a genuine news agency, Peking's de facto embassy and the centre of the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee, as the Communist Party is known in its semi-clandestine form.

For the past few days the NCNA headquarters office has opened its normally closed doors to all visitors wishing to pay their respects to the deceased Mr Deng. Even the Governor, Chris Patten, and members of the Democratic Party were admitted for the first time.

Xinhua was established in Hong Kong in 1949, the year the Communist Party consolidated its control over China. As China's economic reforms took hold it got more involved with the business community, which was being assiduously courted to invest in the motherland.

By the mid-Eighties, reforms were introduced so that Xinhua could reach out beyond the confines of its established supporters. Local offices were established so that officials could get closer to grassroots organisations and build the so-called "united front" of organisations and people who could be attracted as allies of the Communist Party without becoming members.

The agency acts as the central point for controlling the network of pro- Peking publications, including three newspapers, a group of six schools, trade unions and housing associations and rural associations.

After the turmoil of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre subsided, Xinhua came under the direction of Zhou Nan, a bureaucrat. He ensured that the agency became a centre of orthodoxy with little flexibility to establish relations with anyone who was not considered to be friendly towards Peking.

This suited the party leadership who were keen to restore order. But the lack of flexibility became an increasing liability as the handover of power came closer and the government needed a better quality of information about what was happening in Hong Kong. Communist Party activity in the colony is called "white work". It is not publicly acknowledged but is extensive, covering not only direct party activity but also the many layers of "united front" work.

Hong Kong members of the Communist Party routinely refuse to acknowledge their membership. The bulk of the estimated 20,000 members are local people working for institutions funded or backed by China.

There is a clear division between the urban and rural cadres. The rural network owes its origins to the struggle against the Japanese in the Thirties when many New Territories people turned to the Communists as the only force actively resisting Japanese militarism.

In the urban areas the Communists have concentrated on trade-union and grassroots activity. The key organisation is the Federation of Trade Unions, which claims to have 170,000 members. The two traditional wings of the Communist Party have been joined by organisations with a more middle-class base. A typical example is the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which was conceived as an alternative to the British-dominated Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

After the events of 1989, the more intelligent members of the Communist Party realised that the influence of the united front would become increasingly marginalised if it did not establish and support new political organisations whose main purpose would be to combat the influence of the pro-democracy parties.

The upshot was the establishment of the Liberal Democratic Foundation, founded by a number of "old order" politicians. A more dynamic and credible body was needed to mobilise mass support. Thus the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) was born in 1994. Because DAB is primarily a working-class party, it was decided to form another party with more middle-class appeal. This led to the founding of the Hong Kong Progressive Alliance by politically ambitious young professionals. In addition to the thousands of officials who are being drafted in to man a new Chinese government centre after the handover, there are reports of some 50 Chinese cadres being installed in the border town of Shenzhen to help in the ideological work of controlling Hong Kong and assist in trouble-shooting when Peking becomes uneasy about developments in the territory.

Hong Kong will have to accommodate the avaricious ambitions of the powerful state corporations as well as the political and economic interests of the People's Liberation Army which will have a base in the territory for its troops alongside its extensive business activities.

Caught in the middle will be the territory's new leader, Tung Chee-hwa, who has said he is confident there will be no "overlord" directing things from behind the scenes.