HONG KONG • The Chinese government has spent at least US$70 million (S$98.5 million) buying Hong Kong properties over the past 12 months, official records show, as Beijing expands its presence after mass democracy protests raised tensions in the China-ruled city.
Three sources close to Chinese officials said the move reflected Beijing's desire to tighten its grip on Hong Kong after the youth-led "Occupy Central" civil disobedience movement last year, which posed one of the biggest political challenges to China's Communist Party leaders in decades.
"They're very concerned," said a Hong Kong delegate to China's legislature, the National People's Congress, which meets with Liaison Office staff.
"I think it's natural for them to expand... They feel they have to try harder, most definitely." The Liaison Office declined to comment on the purchases, which appeared to mostly be for staff housing. It was not possible to confirm whether it has increased the size of its staff in Hong Kong.
There is no legal restriction against the Liaison Office, Beijing's main representative in the city, buying property.
Since December, when the Occupy protesters and road blockades were cleared away by police, the Liaison Office has bought at least 62 new apartments, according to a Reuters review of more than 500 land registry records. This included a new block of 48 flats sold for HK$480 million (S$87.2 million) by a company owned by Henderson Land's billionaire chairman Lee Shau Lee.
A spokesman for Henderson Land said this was a "private investment" by Mr Lee and declined to comment further.
The Liaison Office, set up in 1999, two years after Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, has a sizeable real estate portfolio in one of the world's most expensive property markets. Reuters calculations, based on the purchase prices listed on land registry documents, suggest it has spent around HK$3 billion on properties including an ocean-front clubhouse in the upmarket Stanley area, offices in six locations and at least 490 apartments. Around a quarter of that sum was spent after 2012.
The Liaison Office declined to comment and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, an agency of China's State Council, did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
"I can't say, for sure, that they've speeded up their expansion since Occupy," said another source with ties to Liaison Office officials. "But this is consistent with their pattern of expansion over the past few years ... It will continue."
A former Liaison Office staff member told Reuters the latest moves were a "reallocation of their offices and dormitories" rather than an outright expansion, but he declined to give more details.
In a bid to cool the democratic fervour of local youth, a third source said, there has been a "conspicuous increase" in Liaison Office staff carrying out youth outreach work and grassroots patriotic initiatives since Occupy.