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Fri, Jan 21, 2000 - Page 13 News List

Renamed Xinhua becomes a new force in Hong Kong's politics

Democracy activists are worried that the ex-news agency, now called the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government, is eroding the Special Administrative Region's much-vaunted autonomy under the `one country, two systems' plan

By Cheryl Lai

On Sept. 27 1993, the Chinese government arrested a former colleague of mine, Xi Yang (席揚), at the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao (明報). Xi, who was born in Beijing, was accused of "disclosing national secrets." After his arrest, colleagues in Hong Kong could do nothing more than tie yellow ribbons on the door of the Hong Kong Branch of the Xinhua News Agency (新華社香港分社) on the 27th of every month as a reminder to this event.

The importance of the Xinhua News Agency is not related to its journalism, but to its political role in Hong Kong.

Everybody knows all too well that Xinhua was not only a news agency in Hong Kong, but actually served as the China's de facto embassy, or more precisely, the underground government and local headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, both before and after 1997.

Xinhua had been operating under a veil of secrecy for more than 52 years in Hong Kong. It was well known that the Chinese leadership in 1949 authorized the branch to serve as its contact with the British colonial government in the absence of formal relations. In fact, the Xinhua office had been run by its first director, Qiao Guanhua (喬冠華) from May 1, 1947 as a branch of Chinese Communist Party.

Xu Jiatun (許家屯), a former director of Xinhua (1983-1990) fled to the US from Hong Kong and published his memoirs in 1993. His recollections confirmed that all the Xinhua directors were concurrently head of the local Communist Party cell.

It is only now that Beijing has decided to change the office's name to represent its longstanding status as a political organ -- it is now called the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government (中央人民政府駐香港特別行政區聯絡辦公室). Now that Macau has also been returned to China, the name of Xinhua's branch in the former Portuguese colony has also been changed. The name changes took place on the same day.

At the renaming ceremony Jiang Enzhu (姜恩柱), the first head of the new Liaison Office, said, "It is quite natural for the Central People's Government to have a representative organ in Hong Kong. And it will now turn a new page."

This statement sounds reasonable enough. But why bother changing the name at all, and why now?

According to news reports, an anonymous senior government official confirmed the widely acknowledged "secret" that the several hundred Xinhua employees in Hong Kong are Chinese government officials. Another 80 to 90 people actually do work as journalists for Xinhua in a separate editorial office, he clarified.

That is what we journalists used to refer to "Big Xinhua" (大新華) and "Small Xinhua" (小新華). Now Big Xinhua has changed its name to the Liaison Office, while Small Xinhua retains the old name.

Does this mean we can expect the Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong to be more journalistically professional in the future? If so, would its "political role" be less than that of the other branches around the world, thus fulfilling the promise of "one country, two systems (一國兩制)?"

The answers to both questions are "no" and "no."

But the renaming does have an important political point. It is an announcement that Hong Kong and Macau are both now territories belonging to China and therefore Xinhua no longer needs to serve a diplomatic role.

At best, the change can be seen as a step toward "democracy with Chinese characteristics." Instead of a single "party-state-media" entity (黨國媒不分), two separate organs now exit in Hong Kong: a "party-state" entity and a "party-media" entity.

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