HONG KONG — Beijing's political proxies in Hong Kong have long operated in a system designed to keep them in power, but recently they have come up short.

At the last local elections in 2019, which followed months of violent protests, voters rejected the pro-China establishment in a landslide win for the pro-democracy opposition.

Now, after neutering the democracy movement with disqualifications and mass arrests, Beijing is tacitly effecting a shake-up of the pro-China camp, reflecting dwindling faith in its erstwhile allies amid its ongoing effort to remake Hong Kong.

The opposition’s removal “has given Beijing the impression that there is now a void that the existing bunch of parties and leaders loyal to Beijing could not easily fill,” said Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “It’s [the establishment’s] incompetence and their failure to retain people’s trust that Beijing must have noticed.”

Since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover, Beijing has relied on a semiofficial coalition of business elites, Communist Party loyalists, trade unionists and the city’s government to keep popular demands for greater political rights in check and preserve Hong Kong’s status as a financial center. But the 2019 uprising against China’s encroachment revealed the limits of this alliance, which many came to view as politically ineffective, unreliable and unpopular.

Entering the fray is the Bauhinia Party, a new pro-China group founded by financiers from mainland China, presenting themselves as guardians of stability. Their emergence has pitted pro-China factions against each other in a contest of who can be the best executors of Beijing’s agenda. The new players’ presence is also propagating a veneer of democratic competition and legitimacy in an era when a new national security law has sharply curtailed political freedoms in Hong Kong.

'Spectacular failure'

The November 2019 local elections marked the first time that Li Shan had registered to vote in Hong Kong. The Sichuan-born investment banker, who holds degrees from China’s Tsinghua University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he wasn’t particularly interested in Hong Kong politics until the situation “got very serious.”

Political tensions had exploded that year after Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed allowing extraditions to mainland China. The ensuing protests reflected a deep mistrust of Beijing — subsequently confirmed at the ballot box.

“The pro-establishment [side] was a spectacular failure,” Li said in an interview.

Li, 57, says he was moved to create his own party, seeing a “real demand” for an alternative. So in a nod to the Chinese Communist Party, which was founded on a boat on the South Lake in Zhejiang province a century ago, Li founded his on a boat on Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

Li acknowledges suspicions about his background. He is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Chinese government. He doesn’t speak Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong. But he insists that he received no direction from the Chinese government or its liaison office in Hong Kong.

“But when I formed my party, I knew they would bless us, because what we are doing is good for Hong Kong, and it is also good for China,” he said.

Citing his Western education and time in the United States, he said he would be able to bridge East and West and restore Hong Kong’s economic position despite U.S. sanctions on the city’s leaders.

“We can do this much better than the pro-establishment people,” he said. “Even pro-democracy guys say, ‘Look at your [existing] pro-establishment guys. This guy is much better,’ ” he added, referring to himself.

In interviews, Beijing’s longtime allies pushed back on the idea that they will be displaced or that bad blood exists between their camp and the Chinese central government.

“It is robust for a society to have different political parties representing different views,” said Holden Chow, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the largest pro-Beijing party, which typically appeals to the grass roots for support and whose leaders often rail against the West.

“We welcome different political parties, representing different views, and with different strengths, they can approach different people,” he added, postulating that the Bauhinia Party will appeal to residents from the mainland in Hong Kong rather than directly competing with his party.

Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council and legislative council, said that while Li’s goals were laudable, “he doesn’t stand a chance.”

The bread and butter of a party is “to win votes so you can win seats on the important bodies, so you have a voice, so that you have influence,” said Ip, founder of the New People’s Party. “I don’t think he really understands what that involves.”

Michael Tien, another pro-Beijing lawmaker, said it would be hard for the newcomers to win popular support. “There is a political divide that I don’t think they can change over a short period of time,” Tien said.

Tien, Ip and Chow were among the pro-Beijing politicians who lost seats considered safe in the 2019 local elections.

Loyalty test

Sitting apart from this bickering is the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, sometimes described as a shadow government pulling the strings. Last January, Beijing suddenly appointed Luo Huining, a mainland party cadre whom it called out of semi-retirement, as its new chief. The following month China named Xia Baolong, an official known for tearing crosses off church roofs in China, to head its Beijing-based Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.

Over the past year, the liaison office has become more disconnected from Hong Kong’s traditional power brokers, forgoing its role as social connector for the city’s establishment and instead operating independently, Western diplomats and pro-China politicians say.

Ip said there has been “much less mingling with local community leaders or business leaders on the part of” Luo, citing the pandemic, his personality and a new strategy from Beijing.

“It is timely to have a review [as] things have turned sour, things have gone wrong,” she said.

It is “deliberately different” from the office’s previous relationship with Hong Kong’s power brokers, Tien added.

Ho-fung Hung, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies Hong Kong politics, notes that the liaison office’s role has been expanding for years, coordinating election campaigns on behalf of the establishment camp, commenting openly on local political issues and visiting ordinary citizens.

“The perception is it has been coming to the fore as the true power center of Hong Kong,” Hung said.

Reached by phone, a representative of the liaison office declined to answer questions from The Washington Post and suggested mailing the office to set up a meeting.

What is left, analysts say, is for pro-establishment parties to outdo each other in proposals that would please Beijing and align with its vision for Hong Kong.

This month, a lawmaker representing the restaurant industry suggested placing cameras in school classrooms to monitor teachers for “subversive” remarks. Ip, in a column, suggested curbs on dual nationality.

Li’s party, meanwhile, proposes integrating Hong Kong with mainland Chinese cities and has called for Hong Kongers to be allowed to serve in the People’s Liberation Army.

This jousting, though, is ultimately happening among allies. Most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians are facing criminal charges, or are in prison, or exile.

“This will not help bolster or create a mirage of democracy when Hong Kong’s core values are under attack,” said Chan, the professor.