By Keith Zhai
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – China has replaced the head of its Hong Kong Liaison Office, the most senior mainland political official based in the Chinese-controlled territory, following more than six months of often-violent anti-government protests in the city.
Wang Zhimin, who had held the post since 2017, had been replaced by 65-year-old Luo Huining, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said on its website late on Saturday. Until November, Luo was the top official of China’s ruling Communist Party in the northern province of Shanxi.
Reuters reported exclusively in November that Beijing was considering potential replacements for Wang, in a sign of dissatisfaction with the Liaison Office’s handling of the crisis, the worst since the city reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Saturday’s statement gave no other details on the change.
Luo, a loyalist of President Xi Jinping, has not previously held any Hong Kong-related position and 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.
The Liaison Office, which reports to China’s State Council, serves as the platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city, and 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.
Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it had been only a matter of time before Beijing made Hong Kong-related personnel changes, and that 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,” Ma said of Luo.
Johnny Lau, a political scientist and commentator, said Wang’s exit was unlikely to placate Hong Kong protesters who have demanded that the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, step down.
Writing in the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily in 2017, Luo said Shanxi province had been ardently following instructions from Xi to clean up the mess there.
“All the province’s people have deeply felt that the all-out efforts to enforce party discipline have been like spring rain washing away the smog,” Luo wrote.
Before moving to Shanxi, Luo had been the top party official in the western province of Qinghai.
“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 in 2017.
Mass protests erupted in June in Hong Kong over an extradition bill that would have allowed individuals to be sent for trial to the mainland, where justice is controlled by the Communist Party.
Though the bill was withdrawn, protests have continued over a broad perception that Beijing is meddling improperly in city affairs and complaints of police brutality.
Lam said in a statement on Saturday that the Liaison Office would continue under Luo’s leadership to work with the Hong Kong government for the “positive development” of the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong.
She added that Luo’s predecessor had provided “staunch support” to the Hong Kong government’s efforts to curb violence and uphold the rule of law during the unrest of recent months.
(Reporting by Keith Zhai in Singapore and Vincent Lee in Beijing; additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Marius Zaharia and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Writing by Engen Tham, Tony Munroe and Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Toby Chopra and Gareth Jones)