A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Efforts in Hong Kong

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 14

The founding ceremony in July 1992 for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (later renamed the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong), the pro-Beijing coalition in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. (Source: DAB)

Editor’s note: Our previous two issues contained articles by Russell Hsiao that profiled institutions and methods employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to cultivate influence in Japan (A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Operations in Japan, June 26, 2019) and in Singapore (A Preliminary Survey of CCP Influence Operations in Singapore, July 16, 2019). In this issue, Mr. Hsiao completes this series by examining the organizations and methods by which the CCP seeks to erode the independent institutions and political norms of Hong Kong, and thereby to more fully assert Beijing’s control over the city. 

Introduction and Background

The steady erosion of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR)’s autonomy that has visibly occurred in the two decades since reversion—and accelerated under Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping since 2012—raises questions as to how the social, political, and legal institutions that make up the foundation of Hong Kong’s distinctive system and political autonomy have been eroded since the 1997 retrocession. This article provides a preliminary survey describing some of the means by which the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intervene and exercise influence in Hong Kong—through the PRC Liaison Office, political parties, media, academia, and community organizations—in order to promote the CCP’s political agenda and undermine the influence of the territory’s pro-democracy forces.

The CCP has long sought to exert greater control over Hong Kong, but its methods have changed dramatically over time. In 1967, pro-PRC revolutionary riots instigated and organized by underground Communist forces led to a sweeping crackdown by the colonial government, which wiped out much of the CCP’s organizational structure in Hong Kong. [1] By contrast, CCP efforts that began prior to the 1997 reversion of the territory to the PRC have emphasized efforts to build behind-the-scenes influence through social organizations and influential persons. 

An early warning sign for Beijing came in 1991, six years before the handover. In the first ever direct election of the Legislative Council (LEGCO) in Hong Kong that year [2], all the pro-Beijing candidates were defeated. Shocked by the result, Lu Ping (魯平), then-director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in the PRC State Council, publicly encouraged the organization of pro-Beijing political parties in preparation for the 1995 LEGCO elections. Politicians affiliated with pro-Beijing labor unions and other CCP-influenced organizations followed Beijing’s orders and formed the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in 1992 (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, undated).

The evolution of China’s Hong Kong policy reached a turning point in 2003, after public angst came to a head over the attempt by SAR authorities to revise Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23. This step would have criminalized “political activities” by foreign entities, and cooperation with those foreign entities by local bodies. Following this controversy, the CCP intensified united front activities in Hong Kong. [3]

The Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong

Central government organizations generally kept a low profile in Hong Kong in the first 10 years after the handover. Until 2000, the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) operated under the loose cover of the New China News Agency (Xinhua She, 新华社—also NCNA or Xinhua News Agency). One informed observer has described the relations between China and Hong Kong as “One Country, Two Systems,” but noted that within Hong Kong there is “One System, Two Administrations.” [4] The first of the “two administrations” is the local government headed by the chief executive (and selected by Beijing through the election committee), which is legally accountable to the Hong Kong people and Beijing. The second administration is the representative of the Central Government in Hong Kong, operating from the Liaison Office. Formally established in 2000, the office is currently headed by Wang Zhimin (王志民), who acts as the top CCP official in Hong Kong.  

The Pro-Beijing “United Front” Architecture in Hong Kong

One of the principal means by which the CCP attempts to channel its influence globally is through its network of united front organizations (China Brief, May 9; China Brief, May 9). Hong Kong is no exception. The united front in Hong Kong follows a strategy of “long term cultivation,” with activities formed along “battle lines” (zhanxian, 战线) and divided across a broad social strata. [5] According to Sonny Lo, as part of this whole-of-society approach, the united front simultaneously engages multiple interest groups regardless of their political inclinations. Targeted constituencies include: the DAB and other pro-Beijing parties; Fujianese and Taiwanese interest groups; women’s interest groups; “All-China Federation” labor unions; businessmen, civil servants, and educators; and community organizations (China Uncensored, July 5).

Local observers claim that the Liaison Office coordinates the United Front system in Hong Kong. One prominent author has estimated that the united front architecture extends over more than 600 various organizations, and that “it has cultivated as many as 4,000 to 6,000 civic groups over the years.” [6] According to Lee Wing-Tat (李永達), a former member of the LEGCO and chairman of the Democratic Party, there are around 210,000 underground CCP cadres in Hong Kong (Liberty Times, March 25).

Trade Federations and Labor Unions

Trade federations and labor unions provide one of the major conduits for CCP co-option activities. This  includes groups such as the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (FEW), and pro-CCP chambers of commerce. According to one observer, these federations engage in grassroots outreach and perform social services—such as bringing food and other basic living essentials to supporters, hosting dinners, and similar activities—in order to expand the support base for the CCP. These tactics were described by one analyst as “vote buying during non-election season.” Given Hong Kong’s legal status as a Special Administrative Region of the PRC (with no legal restrictions preventing its people from participating in political activities in China), the CCP reinforces these united front tactics by recruiting pro-Beijing community leaders in Hong Kong to sit on local and provincial-level branches of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [7]

The All-China Federations (Zhonghua Quanguo Hui, 中华全国会), are national-level organizations under the CPPCC, a political-advisory body directed by the CCP (Gov.cn, February 9, 2005).  In particular, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (Zhonghua Quanguo Zhonggong Hui, 中华全国总工会) is the most active and has the longest history in Hong Kong. Other active All-China Federations in Hong Kong include the All China Women’s Federation (Zhonghua Quanguo Funu Lianhe Hui, 中华全国妇女联合会) and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce (Zhonghua Quanguo Gongshangye Lianhe Hui, 中华全国工商业联合会) (All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, undated). While not directly listed, local observers believe that the Hong Kong chapters are subordinate to, and serve as local chapters of, these All-China Federations. [8]

Political Parties

Because Hong Kong is a SAR, the PRC government is able to exert indirect control over the Hong Kong elections. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, half of the seats (35) representing geographical constituencies in the LEGCO are subject to direct elections, while the other half are elected by functional representatives (businesses, professionals, banks, insurance companies, etc.), which are generally pro-establishment. Despite this structural limitation, the pro-democracy coalition still generally wins around 55% of popular support in the LEGCO elections, but the pro-Beijing coalition still controls the legislature through the functional representatives. The CCP thus exerts indirect control over the LEGCO by its control over the coalition of pro-Beijing parties. [9]

United front mobilization is most effective at the local district-level. According to Lee Wing-Tat, on average there are 550 underground cadres in each of Hong Kong’s 450 districts (Liberty Times, March 25). The aforementioned networks are mobilized for elections and counter-protests. [10] DAB support at the district level is consistent with and appears to be an indicator of effective mobilization, generally leading to electoral victories for the pro-establishment parties. At the same time, pro-democracy forces do not have comparable resources at the district level. According to Loh, “Overlapping memberships among DAB, FTU, and key united front bodies result in a ‘triple alliance’ among them to count on each other for campaigning support.” [11]


Hong Kong is still an open society, and the territory’s citizens have access to alternate sources of information. However, traditional media networks are coming increasingly under the control of pro-Beijing entities. [12] Aside from Apple Daily and Ming Pao, most newspapers, television networks, and online news outlets are either directly owned or indirectly controlled by pro-Beijing businessmen. At the same time, CCP propaganda work under Xi Jinping has become more aggressive. In the case of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, China is using propaganda on at least two levels. First, it is selectively showing its domestic population negative news about the anti-extradition protests (such as portraying only the alleged violence of protesters, or clips from Cantonese singer Denise Ho calling on the United Nations to kick out China). On the second level, the CCP is actively disseminating propaganda in Hong Kong that brands anti-extradition protesters as being pro-independence or anti-Chinese. [13]


Academic freedom has been curtailed by the filling of senior executive positions by pro-CCP mainlanders. Pressure has also been applied against faculty members, and some junior academics were terminated for their involvement in the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Administrators in eight government-funded universities were handpicked by Hong Kong’s former chief executive, and are alleged to be increasingly pro-Beijing. [14] Academic associations such as the China Association of Professors in Hong Kong and Macau are also united front outfits, with many members sitting in the CPPCC and the NPC. [15]

Community Organizations

The CCP is also utilizing community organizations (shetuan, 社团) to mobilize support for pro-Beijing political parties at the grassroots level. Hometown, kinship, and clan associations are prominent examples of these community organizations. The PRC Liaison Office is often seen engaging with the leaders of community organizations as part of its co-option strategy for business elites and grassroots individuals, and offers them benefits such as selection for seats on statutory boards (and sometimes affiliations with the NPC or CPPCC). It’s worth pointing out that most community organizations provide social services for real needs, and in doing so build trust and loyalty. These community organizations are then mobilized when necessary for elections or counter-protests. (Anecdotal evidence of counter-protesters claiming that they do not know what they are protesting appears to support this observation.) [16]


Beijing established ties with underworld figures in Hong Kong prior to the handover in 1997, seeking an additional means of future influence in the territory (Asia Times, November 30, 2018). This arrangement was hinted at by then-PRC Public Security Minister Tao Siju (陶驷驹), who told reporters in 1993 that some of the city’s triads “are patriotic” and that they “love the country and love the party” (SCMP, April 23, 2016; Hong Kong Free Press, July 27). According to Hong Kong academic T. Wing Lo, “triad leaders get a lot of money from the CCP through middle men” in the united front architecture (SMH, July 22).

Pan-democratic legislators in Hong Kong have in the past accused triad gangs of acting as violent enforcers for the city’s pro-Beijing administration, as in instances where gangs attacked protestors during the “Occupy Movement” in autumn 2014 (The Guardian, October 4, 2014). Triad gangs are also widely suspected of involvement in attacks against protestors amid the city’s current unrest—as when a large group of men wearing white shirts carried out an apparently organized attack on commuters in the Yuen Long train station on the evening of July 21 (see accompanying images).

Image: Men wearing white shirts and carrying sticks, widely suspected of being triad gang members, attack commuters (many of whom were returning from an anti-administration protest) in the Yuen Long subway station on the evening of July 21, 2019. (Source: SCMP)
Image: A photo of pro-administration LEGCO member Junius Ho (Ho Kuan-Yiu, 何君堯) (left), shaking hands with a suspected triad member on the night of July 21, 2019. (Source: Reddit)


The Chinese Communist Party has long considered it necessary to intervene in Hong Kong, even well before the territory reverted back to China in 1997. A decade before the handover, the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping stated openly: “After 1997 we shall still allow people in Hong Kong to attack the Chinese Communist Party and China verbally, but what if they should turn their words into action, trying to convert Hong Kong into a base of opposition to the mainland under the pretext of ‘democracy’? Then we would have no choice but to intervene.” [17] The ongoing and escalating standoff between pro-democracy forces and city authorities (with Beijing involved behind the scenes) reflects the CCP’s imperative to enforce control over the city.

For the CCP, Hong Kong represents an imminent existential threat: it is a part of China, but it is not under full PRC administration. Beijing is clearly concerned that the city is turning into a “base of opposition to the mainland,” and as a response has been intensifying united front influence operations to affect Hong Kong’s political institutions and change its social fabric (Financial Times, July 14). CCP influence operations appear to be most successful with traditional constituencies such as unions and business groups, and with fringe groups of Hong Kong society (e.g., new migrants and triads), but far less successful with the current mainstream of Hong Kong society. However, demographic trends are shifting and mainland Chinese immigrants make up about 12.8 percent of Hong Kong’s population (SCMP, August 15, 2018). Although more people appear be participating in united front activities, it is not clear whether these activities are truly changing hearts and minds. [18] If the 2003, 2014, and now 2019 protests serve as indicators, Beijing’s strategy has obtained influence in Hong Kong, but not affection.

Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and currently a visiting scholar the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Advanced Asian Studies. He is an adjunct fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum and a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy for 2018-19. The author would like to thank many anonymous interviewees for their insights. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and are not intended to reflect the positions of any of his affiliated organizations.


[1] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 11, 2019.

[2] The first ever legislative election (indirect) was conducted in 1985 after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

[3] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 11, 2019. For a definition of “united front” activities as connected to the CCP, see: Anne-Marie Brady, “On the Correct Use of Terms,” China Brief, May 9, 2019. https://jamestown.org/program/on-the-correct-use-of-terms-for-understanding-united-front-work/.

[4] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 11, 2019.

[5] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 10, 2019.

[6] Christine Loh, Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press: 2010), p. 222.

[7] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 10, 2019.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 11, 2019.

[11] Christine Loh, Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press: 2010) p. 216.

[12] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 12, 2019.

[13] For a comprehensive treatment of CCP propaganda in Hong Kong, see, e.g., Luqiu, L. R., Propaganda, Media, and Nationalism in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Lanham, MD: 2018, Lexington Books.

[14] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 11, 2019.

[15] It is noteworthy to point out that the colonial education system is also an important pillar for ensuring Hong Kong’s autonomy. An estimated 93% of primary and secondary schools are NGO owned, only about 7% are government-owned; an even more limited number are owned by leftist schools (pro-Beijing). Many do not necessarily support “patriotic education.” At the same time, official PRC policy is that Hong Kong ceased to be a colony in 1972; however, in practice the CCP still treats Hong Kong as dealing with “decolonization” (which emphasizes the need for united front operations). The civil service system still values Hong Kong’s autonomy based on the civil service system (education), independent judiciary, and rule of law. Source: Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 10, 2019. 

[16] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 12, 2019.

[17] Quoted in Richard C. Bush, Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2016), p. 4.

[18] Author’s interview, Hong Kong, July 10, 2019.