HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s democrats won their battle to veto a Beijing-backed electoral reform package, but face an increasingly organized campaign by pro-Chinese government movements in the longer war over the former British colony’s democratic future.
The tense hours before the vote sparked protests by dozens of pro-Beijing groups outside the Legislative Council - a push diplomats, politicians and academics believe highlights an intensified effort by China to exert control over the Asian financial hub.
That effort is run through the United Front Work Department, a branch of the Communist Party’s Central Committee with a mission to spread China’s reach by gaining control and influence over a range of groups not affiliated with the party, sources with ties to Beijing have told Reuters.
United Front Hong Kong operations have expanded since mass pro-democracy protests last year, when the so-called Occupy Central movement shut down parts of the city, a Reuters study has found. The United Front Work Department did not respond to requests for comment.
As legislators debated the reform package this week, more than a thousand pro-Beijing supporters thronged the building waving China flags, singing patriotic songs and sometimes heckling the democracy activists they far outnumbered.
“They are very organized and very prepared. I’ve never seen them like this before,” said Ip Kim-Ching, a leader of Umbrella Blossom, a pro-democracy group. “They’ve been trying to make us angry all night, trying to make us react.”
The Chinese national anthem blared from loudspeakers, while burly men wearing earpieces and sun-glasses corralled crowds and led chants. Several scuffles broke out, as pro-Beijing supporters, some wearing identical caps and matching shirts, pushed and kicked democracy activists.
“Everyone has his right to wear whatever he wants,” said Robert Chow, one of the chief organizers of the pro-Beijing rally. “I don’t know who they are.”
China’s official representative in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Chow said more than 100 local associations joined the rally, and pro-Beijing newspapers reported that representatives from China’s parliament mingled among the crowds.
The rejected package offered a city-wide vote for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, but only from candidates approved by a pro-Beijing screening committee. Opponents said it fell far short of the universal suffrage promised when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Passing that deal, and denting the veto-power of Hong Kong’s democrats at the next council election in 2016, has become a priority for Beijing and its supporters.
Sonny Lo, an academic and author of a book on China’s efforts to control Hong Kong, said United Front groups were now in “constant mobilization”.
A key Chinese official spearheading Hong Kong affairs, Wang Guangya, said in December during a meeting with the Kowloon Federation of Associations, one of the groups at the protest, that Hong Kong patriotic groups should: “continue to expand, strengthen cooperation and unity” according to the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper.
A Reuters analysis of more than 200 articles in the Ta Kung Pao and another pro-Beijing newspaper, the Wen Wei Po, over the past half-year offers a window into the workings of United Front operations.
It found that a flurry of senior United Front officials from at least 14 mainland Chinese cities, provinces and counties visited Hong Kong over the period, meeting the expanding network of pro-Beijing groups, including at least nine involved in the recent protest.
“The opposition had incited the students to jeopardize the future development of Hong Kong,” a senior United Front official, Lin Zhimin, said in October during the protests.
“I hope we can work together to expose their conspiracy,” she said in a Wen Wei Po report on Oct. 15.
There was no immediate response from Beijing’s United Front Work Department to faxed questions from Reuters.
Some pro-Beijing groups appear to be now attempting to dent the influence of local democrats in the upcoming election.
“Vote them down in 2016!” shouted many pro-Beijing protesters outside the legislature, soon after the veto.
One group, the Po Kin Hai Liu Association, says on its website that it mobilizes members to vote for candidates who “love both China and Hong Kong”. The group was not immediately reachable for comment.
The website of the Confederacy of Hong Kong Shanwei Clansmen said it had 6,000 members who would “proactively involve themselves in Hong Kong electoral activities”. A staff member at its office, who declined to be named, said it asked: “clansmen to go to vote and exercise their duty as Hong Kong citizens.”
Hong Kong democrats say they are increasingly aware of the expanding reach of the Front's operation. In the final debate ahead of the vote, lawmaker Claudia Mo said it was vital to block a package that could keep out popular candidates "not approved by Beijing and its United Front goons in Hong Kong".(For a special report, click: here)
Additional reporting by Yimou Lee, James Zhang, Clare Baldwin, Venus Wu and Viola Zhou; Editing by Alex Richardson