Changes in Leadership Emphasize Antiterrorism Approach in Hong Kong

Recent leadership changes in China’s peripheral regions signal the government’s continuing focus on an aggressive, heavily securitized approach to stability maintenance. The newest CCP cadre inserted into a prominent role is Major General Peng Jingtang, the new commander of Hong Kong’s PLA garrison, whose predecessor Chen Daoxiang is reaching retirement age. Dan Strumpf and Wenxin Fan from the Wall Street Journal described Peng’s background as a top counterrorism official in Xinjiang:

China has named a top internal security forces officer who helped lead Beijing’s crackdown in Xinjiang as the new chief of its army garrison in Hong Kong, the latest hard-line appointment by Beijing in the financial center.

Major General Peng Jingtang, a deputy chief of staff of China’s People’s Armed Police, will head the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported late Sunday. He was previously chief of staff for the armed police in the far western region of Xinjiang, site of a yearslong crackdown on predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and other minorities.

There Mr. Peng was tasked with counterterrorism, helping train an elite squad known as the Mountain Eagles. In 2019, he told the state-run Global Times newspaper that the squad fired as many rounds of ammunition in 2018 as all other Xinjiang security forces combined had done over the previous three years. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping honored an unspecified antiterrorism squad in Xinjiang that officials said killed 91 terrorists. [Source]

Peng is the eighth PLA garrison commander in Hong Kong, and the first to come from the People’s Armed Police (PAP). According to the Global Times, his background in domestic counterterrorism “shows that his appointment is more targeted at safeguarding social stability and dealing with national security-related issues in Hong Kong.” Minnie Chan and Tony Cheung from the South China Morning Post highlighted the expanding role of the Hong Kong PLA garrison and its focus on counterterrorism

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based military magazine Kanwa Asian Defence, said Peng’s deployment to the city showed how the role of the Hong Kong garrison had changed, extending from defence of territory and sovereignty to counter riots and anti-terrorism.

“The Hong Kong garrison has acquired many anti-terrorist and counter-riot weapons and equipment since the anti-government protests in 2019 … many were transferred from the armed police force,” Chang said.

“Peng’s appointment reflected Beijing’s fear of potential riots in Hong Kong. The central government attempts to prevent the ongoing anti-government sentiment to be turned into social unrest, or even extreme terrorist attacks.”

[…] “The current biggest threat in Hong Kong is counterterrorism. Peng’s expertise meets the requirement, that’s why he was chosen,” said Song Zhongping, a military commentator and former PLA instructor. [Source]

Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law and garrison law, the PLA garrison “shall not interfere in local affairs,” but the city government may ask Beijing for the garrison’s assistance “in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief.” Since the pro-democracy protests in 2019, the garrison has become more visible to the public. In the summer of 2019, it made veiled threats to intervene against protesters, and following one street clash between protesters and police in November of that year, the garrison helped clear debris in a highly symbolic act. It has also held public drills simulating crowd control and antiterrorism operations last summer and this past week, to “boost its capability in fulfilling Hong Kong’s defensive duties”, according to China News Service. In July 2021, the garrison opened a public exhibition center to “help strengthen public awareness about patriotism and national defense.” 

Other government appointees in and around Hong Kong similarly demonstrate a comprehensive restructuring around politicized public security and law enforcement. In one of the first leadership appointments following the National Security Law, Beijing’s Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong was inaugurated by Zheng Yanxiong, a hardliner with experience battling protesters and liberal media. In January of last year, Guangdong’s anti-corruption chief Shi Kehui moved to a disciplinary role at the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. That same month, among the 200 additional cadres sent from the mainland to the Hong Kong liaison office was its new deputy director, Zheng Lin, who arrived from the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, China’s top law enforcement body. Over the past two years, as Iain Marlow from Bloomberg described, other officials with backgrounds leading crackdowns have ascended to prominent government roles in Hong Kong:

“China has in recent years installed officials with experience heading crackdowns in key Hong Kong roles. In early 2020, Luo Huining, a Communist Party stalwart known for executing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, became head of the central government’s powerful Liaison Office in the city. Xia Baolong, known for prosecuting a campaign against Christian churches in Zhejiang province, was named director of the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office in the same year.

Hong Kong has also put former career policemen in key government roles in the wake of the city’s large and sometimes violent anti-government protests in 2019. Former police chief John Lee rose to the city’s No. 2 government position in June, while fellow former officer, Chris Tang, became security secretary.” [Source]

Other regions have seen leadership changes that emphasize securitization. Last October, Wang Junzheng became the new Party secretary of Tibet after serving as head of security in Xinjiang, where his role in overseeing the alleged Uyghur genocide earned him the nickname the “Butcher of Xinjiang” and made him the most sanctioned official in the CCP. His appointment in Tibet “indicates that the Chinese authorities intend to continue using an iron fist to control the Tibetan people,” said the International Campaign for Tibet. 

Meanwhile, Xinjiang’s infamous Party secretary Chen Quanguo, who exhorted officials to “round up everyone who should be rounded up” in the crackdown on Uyghurs, was replaced last month by Guangdong’s governor, Ma Xingrui. Ma was formerly head of the National Space Administration and director of the State Administration for Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, and his unique experience outside of politics has led some to believe that his appointment signals a shift in emphasis toward economic development in Xinjiang. Lizzi Lee described the advantages of Ma’s diverse background: “His previous interactions with foreign investors and international corporations should have provided him with ideas on how to address labor and human rights concerns as Western companies increasingly avoid products.” 

But Ma has vowed to maintain his predecessor’s focus on social stability and public order: “We have to steadfastly sustain long-term stability in Xinjiang’s society and must not let this stability – which did not come easy – to be undone,” he said at his first leadership meeting as Xinjiang party secretary. As Adile Ablet and Tenzin Dickyi note in Radio Free Asia, Ma is unlikely to end the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang:

Chen’s replacement is a “change from the high impact, high pressure mode into more of a long-term maintenance mode that will continue to employ oppressive policies in a long-term way,” said [Adrian] Zenz, an independent researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

“[With his] replacement by the governor of Guangdong, we can see Beijing’s strategy of long-term economic development of the region while maintaining the high-impact oppression, assimilation, population optimization, and costs of labor that will all be maintained in a way that is kind of like a slow, slow genocide,” he said.

[…] “Ma Xingrui, who will replace Chen Quanguo as the Xinjiang party chief, has promised to uphold the current state of supervision in Xinjiang as it is now,” [Kunga Tashi, an expert on Tibet-China relations] said. “So, I believe this replacement just has to do with a wider reshuffle ahead of next year’s 20th [National] Party Congress and nothing to do with ending the harsh policies in Xinjiang.” [Source]


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