Beijing last weekend appointed former Shanxi CCP chief Luo Huining to replace Wang Zhimin as the head of the China liaison office in Hong Kong. The abrupt replacement comes as the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement enters its seventh month of protest, and after 400 of the tens of thousands of people who demonstrated on New Year’s Day were arrested, bringing the total arrests in the city to 7,000 since protests began in June. In a brief public statement on Monday, Luo expressed his hope that Hong Kong could “return to the right path.” The AFP reports:
He gave little clue as to whether Beijing’s approach towards the city would change as it convulses with popular anger against mainland rule.
“In the past six months, Hong Kong’s situation has made everybody’s heart wrench. Everyone earnestly hopes that Hong Kong can return to the right path,” Luo said, declining to take questions from reporters.
[…] Luo struck a conciliatory tone in saying Hong Kong had made an “important contribution to (China’s) opening up and modernisation”.
At Reuters, Clare Jim and Noah Sin provide further information on Luo and what his appointment to the liaison office could imply about Beijing’s approach to the situation in Hong Kong:
Luo Huining’s appointment is seen as a sign of Beijing’s frustration with how his predecessor, Wang Zhimin, handled the crisis and makes Wang the shortest serving liaison office director since the city’s 1997 return to Chinese rule.
The liaison office, which reports to China’s State Council or cabinet, is a platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city.
[…] Unlike Wang, who worked at China’s state news agency and within the liaison office before taking its helm, Luo has no prior experience in Hong Kong, a point he was keen to address in his first remarks to the media after taking office.
[…] Analysts have interpreted Luo’s appointment as a punishment for Wang, rather than a signal for a change in the central government’s attitude to the protests.
“Clearly Wang is being dismissed given the Hong Kong chaos. He either didn’t see it coming nor could he stop or limit it, either way he is gone,” said Fraser Howie, Director of Newedge Financial in Singapore. [Source]
At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher reports further on Luo’s Party career, noting that he has a record of “difficult assignments”:
Mr. Wang’s successor, Mr. Luo, has served as the top official, Communist Party secretary, in two provinces. Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has found in him a representative whose main qualification appears to be political loyalty and experience in tough security measures, but who has little familiarity with Hong Kong.
From 2003 to 2016, Mr. Luo rose through the ranks in Qinghai Province, in western China, where Beijing has pursued increasingly stringent policies toward a large Tibetan minority. Mr. Luo became governor there in 2010 and then Communist Party secretary in 2013, according to his official biography.
[…] In 2016, Mr. Xi put Mr. Luo in charge of cleaning up Shanxi Province, a northern coal-mining area plagued by corruption scandals. Mr. Luo oversaw a purge of the party’s senior ranks there, as a series of investigations documented broad misconduct.
Mr. Luo is an unexpected choice to run the Central Liaison Office because of his relatively advanced age, 65, and because he has already worked as a provincial-level leader in mainland China. He was also only a month into his latest job, in China’s national legislature, suggesting that the decision to send him to Hong Kong came together fast. [Source]
In a brief report on Luo, Reuters notes Luo’s proven adherence to Party discipline, and that his new assignment comes less than a month after he had been assigned to a post on the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee.
In an opinion essay at the South China Morning Post, Alex Lo predicts an imminent PRC policy shift towards Hong Kong, and explains why Beijing decided to replace Wang and not Chief Executive Carrie Lam:
At 65, Luo was set for retirement. This means he can do what he thinks is necessary in Hong Kong and not worry about damage to his career prospects. So, for better or worse, whether to expect a harsher or more moderate line from Beijing, a policy shift towards Hong Kong is likely.
Another question that has been on people’s minds is: why just Wang and not Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor?
Their two situations, however, are completely different. Both Wang and the pro-Beijing establishment, notably the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, bought into the fatal illusion of a silent majority ready to punish the opposition for the protesters’ mayhem at the district polls in November.
But Beijing has been lenient, almost sympathetic, to the bloc’s humiliating defeat at the polls. That has meant open season on Wang in being blamed for the electoral disaster.
Lam, however, is still useful in willingly painting herself as the initiator of the ill-fated extradition bill that triggered the crisis. More importantly, she seems willing to defend the local police to the last. Any viable candidates to replace her would distance themselves from the force as far as possible. [Source]
See also an opinion essay from Bloomberg’s Noah Smith, who warns that the global wave of youth protests that has swept Hong Kong, India, Chile, and other countries may spread to mainland China as economic growth continues to slow, inequality continues to grow, and Xi Jinping enacts more authoritarian policies.