• Bloomberg, Reuters


China has replaced its top liaison official for Hong Kong, signaling Beijing’s growing frustration with prodemocracy protests that have dragged on for months.

Luo Huining will take over from Wang Zhimin as the Hong Kong liaison office director, the government said late Saturday in a two-sentence statement that did not elaborate on the changes in the semi-autonomous financial hub.

Luo served as party secretary in the northern province of Shanxi from 2016 until November and became deputy chairman of the financial and economic committee of the National People’s Congress in December.

“Luo’s appointment probably signals a hard-line policy from Beijing — that we don’t give a damn about your feelings,” said Chen Zhao, co-founder of the Montreal-based research firm Alpine Macro, who has insights on China after attending university with some of the nation’s high-ranking officials. “He’s just a party boss — he has no connection with Hong Kong and no foreign affairs expertise.”

Wang was the director of China’s liaison office in Macau before he was appointed the top representative in Hong Kong in 2017. Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 and is now a special administrative region; Macau was returned two years later by Portugal. The liaison office, which reports to China’s State Council, serves as the platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city. It has come in for criticism in Hong Kong and mainland China for misjudging the situation in the city.

Wang is the shortest-serving liaison office director since 1997.

Luo, a loyalist of President Xi Jinping, is at the age when top Chinese officials typically retire. In Shanxi, he had been tasked with cleaning up a graft-ridden, coal-rich region where corruption was once likened to cancer.

Writing in the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily in 2017, Luo said Shanxi had been ardently following instructions from Xi to clean up the mess there. “Shanxi has gone from being a victim of a regression in its political environment to being a beneficiary of all-out efforts to enforce party discipline,” he wrote. Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the switch did not necessarily indicate a change in policy. “Beijing is having trouble devising new policy in Hong Kong,” Ma said. “Given his age, it is possible he is only a stop-gap appointment.”

Hong Kong has been gripped by more than six months of protests by activists demanding greater autonomy from Beijing. The demonstrations have often turned violent, with subway stations, shops and banks vandalized. China’s government has consistently backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam, including on a mid-December visit to Beijing, where she met Xi.

“Luo has no relationship with the business community or political arena in Hong Kong,” Zhao said. “I think it will be very difficult for him to be helpful for the Hong Kong government, whereas the previous guy knew Carrie Lam well.”

With support for the protests undiminished after months of violent unrest, speculation over Wang’s removal has been growing, particularly after pro-government candidates suffered a resounding defeat in Hong Kong district council elections in November. While the polls were for what is considered to be the lowest rung of the city’s government, the results demonstrated the underlying public sentiment.

“Wang’s dismissal was long predicted because he appeared to be associated too closely with the pro-Beijing elites and business leaders without reaching out widely to all social sectors, especially the poor and the needy,” Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong-based political commentator, said Saturday. “His miscalculations of Hong Kong” may have led to his downfall, particularly after the elections.

Lam praised Wang for his “staunch support” for the government’s efforts “to curb violence and uphold the rule of law,” according to a statement. She also welcomed Luo and said that under his leadership the liaison office worked to promote “prosperity and stability” and “the integration of Hong Kong into the overall development of the nation and the positive development of the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong.”

Lam’s administration proposed a bill last year that would have allowed extraditions to China for the first time, prompting the protests. While she has since withdrawn the legislation, the demonstrations persisted and has extended to additional demands including an independent inquiry into police violence and direct leadership elections.

Xi used his New Year’s Eve address to defend China’s system for running Hong Kong, in an unusually high-profile acknowledgment of the financial center’s political turmoil. “Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can people live in peace and enjoy their work?” Xi asked. “I sincerely wish Hong Kong well. Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation of our motherland.”

Luo worked for the Anhui government between 1982 and 1999. In 2010, he was appointed governor of Qinghai before being made party secretary in the province in 2013.

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