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How China’s Communist Party Quietly Built a Real Estate Empire in Hong Kong

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

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Even in a city full of skyscrapers, this one stands out: a 41-story behemoth whose giant rooftop globe towers over almost everything else in the Sai Wan neighborhood of Hong Kong.

Locals know it as the political command center of China's Liaison Office⁠—the Communist Party leadership’s main presence in Hong Kong and a primary target of protesters who have accused the institution of operating a “shadow government” in the semi-autonomous territory. 


But the building is also the crown jewel of a rapidly expanding real estate empire that’s attracting increased scrutiny from pro-democracy lawmakers. They say that the Liaison Office’s property purchases are too opaque and that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam should explain why her administration is granting the office millions of dollars in tax exemptions on real estate transactions that might be used for political ends.

The Liaison Office and its subsidiary companies have received more than HK$206.5 million ($27 million) of stamp-duty exemptions on at least 91 property deals, according to data provided by Hong Kong’s Inland Revenue Department on deals dating to 2012. This includes a record value of exemptions this year for the Liaison Office⁠—HK$80.4 million on 22 transactions, most of which were approved after pro-democracy protests started in June.


While the sums may not seem particularly large in the context of the world’s priciest property market, they’ve struck a nerve in a city where many residents struggle to afford homes and where hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets over the past six months to rail against the Chinese government’s tightening grip. Thousands of protesters surrounded the Liaison Office’s tower in Sai Wan in July, throwing eggs and ink at the Chinese national emblem hanging above the building’s main entrance.

The Liaison Office is “interfering with everything: local elections, every part of the administration, real estate, too,” said Martin Lee, a barrister and founding member of Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic Party.

尽管在世界上最昂贵的房地产市场中,总和看起来并不算特别大,但在这个城市里,很多居民都难以负担得起住房,并且在过去的六个月里成千上万的人走上街头,这让他们感到震惊。几个月来,中国政府的收紧控制力遭到了挑战。 7月,数千名抗议者围在西湾联络处的塔楼,向悬挂在大楼正门上方的中国国徽投掷鸡蛋和墨水。香港反对派民主党的创始成员,大律师马丁·李(Martin Lee)说,联络处“正在干预一切:地方选举,政府的每个部门,房地产。”

In a March statement to the state-run China Daily newspaper, the Liaison Office said its real estate transactions comply with the law and all properties owned by the office are used for work and accommodations for its staff. When reached by phone, officials at the Liaison Office told Bloomberg News they couldn’t provide comment. Lam’s office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council didn’t reply to requests for comment.


Part political boss, part publisher and part landlord, the Liaison Office has been a presence in Hong Kong for almost two decades. It precursors operated covertly during the late 1930s by posing as a wholesale tea company, and later under the guise of the Xinhua News Agency, according to Christine Loh, author of “Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong.”


Since its formal establishment in 2000, the office has played a largely behind-the-scenes role in trying to shape the political landscape in Hong Kong, which China has pledged to give a “high degree of autonomy” under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”


In recent years, though, the office has used subsidiary companies to steadily grow an array of businesses that includes media holdings and most of Hong Kong’s bookstores⁠—provocative moves in a city where the 2015 jailing of booksellers triggered public outrage. The businesses include Sino United Publishing as well as Wen Wei Poi, a Chinese-language newspaper that has spread the narrative that protest leaders are colluding with foreign agents, according to local media reports.

不过,近年来,该办公室利用子公司稳步发展了一系列业务,其中包括媒体控股和香港大部分书店。在2015年对书商的监禁引发公众愤慨的城市,这一举动引起了轰动。据当地媒体报道,这些企业包括中国联合出版公司(Sino United Publishing)以及中文报纸《文汇报》(Wen Wei Poi)。

But real estate is the most valuable piece of the Liaison Office’s portfolio. A Bloomberg examination of hundreds of Hong Kong Land Registry documents found that the office owns properties in more than 20 buildings across the city, with an estimated value of more than $1.5 billion. The figure is likely conservative, given that the Liaison Office doesn’t publicize its transactions and there’s no straightforward way to conduct a comprehensive search of its holdings.


The properties⁠—most of which were acquired after Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain—include office towers and upscale apartments used to house staff. In February, a subsidiary paid HK$248 million for 20 apartments in the Grand Central Complex, a project in the city’s Kwun Tong district. That’s an average price tag equivalent to $1.6 million per apartment.

这些物业(其中大部分是在香港于1997年从英国移交后购得的)包括办公楼和用于安置员工的高档公寓。今年2月,一家子公司以2.48亿港元的价格购买了位于香港观塘区的Grand Central Complex中的20套公寓。平均价格相当于每间公寓160万美元。

The Liaison Office purchased its Sai Wan building, called The Westpoint, directly in 2001 and has done the same with several more properties over the years. Others are held by a private company called Newman Investment whose shareholders are members of the Liaison Office's finance department. Billionaire Henry Cheng’s New World Development, one of Hong Kong's biggest property companies, was formerly a shareholder of Newman Investment in the 1970s, filings show. (New World said it doesn’t have a relationship with Newman Investment and didn’t sell the company to the Liaison Office.)

联络处直接在2001年购买了其位于西湾的大楼,即西点大楼(Westpoint),并且在过去的几年中已经在其他几处物业中做到了这一点。其他公司则由一家名为纽曼投资公司(Newman Investment)的私人公司持有,其股东是联络处财务部门的成员。档案显示,亿万富翁郑亨利的新世界发展公司是香港最大的房地产公司之一,在1970年代曾是纽曼投资公司的股东。 (新世界表示,它与纽曼投资公司没有关系,也没有将公司出售给联络处。)

The office’s direct transactions would qualify for tax exemptions under Section 41 of Hong Kong⁠’s stamp-duty ordinance, which applies to “public officers” and was also used by the British government during colonial times. Purchases by Newman are exempted under a separate section, amended in 1999, that grants Hong Kong’s chief executive broad powers to refund stamp duties. An exemption for Newman would allow it to avoid taxes worth 30% of a property’s value, a rate that was doubled for corporate buyers in 2012 to deter real estate speculation.


Opposition lawmakers say the arrangement lacks transparency. Tanya Chan, a founding member of the city’s Civic Party, says she wants Lam’s government to provide more information on each of the exemptions it grants and why, so that lawmakers and the taxpaying public can better judge whether they were justified.

反对党议员说,这种安排缺乏透明度。该市公民党的创始成员谭雅(Tanya Chan)说,她希望林政府提供更多有关其所给予的每项豁免及其原因的信息,以便立法者和纳税公众可以更好地判断它们是否合理。

Chan worries there’s nothing stopping the Liaison Office from using tax-exempt property purchases to further its political goals in the city and wants the Hong Kong government to introduce safeguards to deter such a possibility. While the opposition now can do little more than call for changes, it may have more power if pro-democracy candidates win additional seats in next year’s Legislative Council elections.


“This is about taxation and whether exemptions are reasonable or not, but we have no idea on what criteria the chief executive bases the exemptions,” Chan said in an interview at her Legislative Council office. 


The Invisible Hand

The many roles played by the Liaison OfficeConflict management: Set up dialogue between Carrie Lam and youth organizations in August.Lobbying: Implored pro-Beijing lawmakers to support Lam’s extradition bill, according to two people familiar.Campaigning: Satellite organizations mobilized support for local elections.Influencing: Offered trips to mainland and dinner events for tycoons and intellectuals.Propaganda: Subsidiaries Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao, Orange News provided party spin on protests, along with Xinhua, under whose guise the party formerly operated.

Jeremy Tam, another Civic Party lawmaker, echoed Chan’s call for more disclosure and said he’s pushing for regulations that would ban the Liaison Office from profiting on the purchase and sale of tax-exempt properties.

The office has in some cases sold properties at a gain, land registry documents show, but this year denied reports that it had rented flats for a profit. “If there’s no transparency, then how would we know?” Tam said.

Additional work: Pei Yi Mak, Venus Feng and Jeremy Scott Diam

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