Hong Kong. As a high school student when Britain ruled Hong Kong, Florence Leung Mo-han was taken into an empty classroom by a teacher and asked to take a secret oath of loyalty.
Standing alone before the blackboard, she raised her right hand before a small flag of the People’s Republic of China. “I was very moved,” she recalled.
The furtive ceremony marked Leung’s first step into the hidden world of Hong Kong’s underground Communist Party, an organization that, decades later, still functions entirely out of view but casts a long shadow over the decision on who will lead this Special Administrative Region of China for the next five years.
Officially, the Party does not exist in Hong Kong. Across the border in mainland China, however, it has more than 80 million members and runs a country of 1.3 billion people.
In Hong Kong, though, it is invisible. It is not registered, has no address or telephone number and has no declared members.
“You can’t see it or touch it,” Leung said. “But it exists.”
So much so that a wealthy land surveyor who she and many others believe is a covert member of the Party has become Hong Kong’s next leader.
He is Leung Chun-ying, who won a vote by 1,193 local grandees entrusted with filling the top government job. Leung, no relation to Florence Leung, has denied being a Party member.
A thick cloud of suspicion and fearful speculation nonetheless hung over Sunday’s ballot. The vote climaxed a tumultuous contest that, though highly undemocratic, has pushed to the fore an issue that touches all of the city’s 7.1 million people: Is Hong Kong to run its own affairs as promised when Britain and China signed a 1984 agreement for the transfer of sovereignty, or is the Party to take command?
“I really have sleepless nights,” said Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s second-most senior official in the dying days of British rule and then in the first years of Chinese control.
“People feel they don’t know the real C.Y.,” said Chan, describing him as “a chameleon” who “always puts up a facade.” She added: “I have never heard him talk about the core values of Hong Kong with any passion — personal liberties, the rule of law, transparency or economic freedom.”
At a time of deep political uncertainty in Beijing, Hong Kong is now swirling with dark rumors and a few hard facts about the role of China in this.
Rumors that Leung is a closet communist have circulated for years. British colonial officials, who tried to keep tabs on the Party through a police unit known as Special Branch, often whispered in private that Leung, now 57, joined the Party as a young man.
In recent days — amid signs that Beijing was backing Leung instead of early favorite Henry Tang — that murmuring became a noisy hubbub of accusations in the press, on the Internet and in public gatherings.
Florence Leung, now 72, flew in from Vancouver to publicize a collection of essays about her experiences in the Party. An anti-Leung group popped up on Facebook urging “everyone to spread widely the information that Leung Chun-ying definitely is a Communist Party member.’”
Leung has denied being a member of the Party and said he has “never been a member of any political party either ‘underground’ or ‘above ground.’ ”
Ta Kung Pao, a Party-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong, denounced a “clear political plot” by “black hands.” Anyway, the paper added, belonging to the Party is nothing to be ashamed of; “Membership of the Party is a glorious title.”
Though officially nonexistent, Hong Kong’s underground Party apparatus has been an open secret for decades. Under British rule it operated under the aegis of the Xinhua News Agency.
The nominal press agency served as a base for Chinese intelligence operatives, officials supervising Chinese business interests and Party functionaries who guided a network of pro-China schools, newspapers, trade unions, cultural groups and other bodies. Xinhua’s head in the colony was never a journalist: His real job was to lead the local Party, known as the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee.
Xu Jiatun, Xinhua’s chief from 1983 to 1990, put the number of Party members in Hong Kong during his time at more than 6,000, roughly half local recruits and the rest mainlanders.
After the handover, Xinhua turned its headquarters overlooking the Happy Valley race track into a hotel and, from a new office block nearby, started focusing on news. Responsibility for the Party apparatus passed to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, located in a tightly guarded tower in Hong Kong’s Western District.
Tsang Yok-sing, a veteran pro-China politician who now heads the Hong Kong legislature, said that after taking back Hong Kong, Chinese officials discussed whether to let the Party operate openly but “decided it is better to keep underground” because breaking cover would threaten the authority of the Hong Kong government.
In the run-up to Sunday’s vote, members of the selection committee reported being leaned on by China’s Liaison Office to support Leung and local media complained of bullying over their coverage. Chan said the Liaison Office was “interfering in a blatant way.” The big and worrying question, she added, is “how is Leung going to pay them back?’’
Nobody believes Leung is a communist intent on ending capitalism, but critics worry about where his ultimate loyalties lie.
Beijing initially backed Tang, the son of a rich industrialist backed by property moguls and some powerful friends in China. But his campaign got mired in a swamp of scandals involving his love life and an illegal underground “palace” at a family villa.
Martin Lee, a prominent lawyer and democracy campaigner, acknowledged that the evidence of Leung’s own supposed affiliations was circumstantial: a manner that strikes many as shifty, trips to China when the country was still largely closed, a reluctance to challenge Beijing on anything and a sudden appointment early in his career to an important post for the handover.
“We all believe C.Y. is a Communist Party cadre,” Lee said. “It is his job to deny it.”
Florence Leung noted that for years she had kept her membership secret. Formally inducted into the Party during a visit to Guangzhou in southern China, she signed a membership form and started paying dues but received a Party card and never knew the identities of any but a handful of other members in Hong Kong. “Everything was secret,” she said. “Everything.”
The Washington Post