Pro-democracy lawmakers are worried that Beijing will continue to tighten its control in Hong Kong
China’s State Council on Thursday appointed Xia Baolong, the vice-chairman of its top political advisory body, as the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO).
Zhang Xiaoming, the original director of HKMAO, was removed from his position and reappointed as deputy director in charge of daily operations of the office. The State Council’s announcement did not say whether Zhang was “demoted” but emphasized that he would continue to be a ministerial-grade official, meaning his salary and benefits would remain unchanged.
Luo Huining and Fu Ziying, heads of the central government’s Liaison Offices in Hong Kong and Macau, respectively, were appointed as deputy directors of the HKMAO.
The leadership change of the HKMAO was a significant move, aiming at upgrading the status of the HKMAO, a columnist named Cheng Yan wrote in a commentary published on Orangenews.hk, a pro-Beijing website reportedly sponsored by the Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
The fact that the HKMAO was now led by a director at deputy national level and three deputy directors at ministerial level showed the central government had attached greater importance to its work in Hong Kong and Macau than before, Cheng said.
The leadership change also meant a significant reform of the central government’s work in Hong Kong and Macau as the HKMAO would become an office of the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, Cheng said.
The appointments of Luo and Fu as HKMAO deputy directors also showed that HKMAO and the two Liaison Offices in Hong Kong and Macau would form a united leadership, Cheng said, adding that all these changes were a proactive reform of the “one country two systems.”
Cheng urged Hong Kong society to take the initiative to act in concert with China’s development and reform, safeguard the “one country” principle and make use of the advantages of “two systems.”
The removal of Zhang from his position has been anticipated since Luo Huining, former party chief of Shanxi province replaced Wang Zhimin to become the director of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong in early January.
Both Zhang and Wang were said to be accountable for the overwhelming defeat of the pro-establishment camp in the District Council election last November. They were also blamed for misjudging the political sentiment in Hong Kong during the extradition saga, which resulted in seven months of social unrest, from last June to January this year.
The restructuring of the HKMAO did not mean any change in Beijing’s Hong Kong policy as whoever in charge would continue to implement Xi’s policies, said Johnny Lau Yiu-siu, a political commentator.
Changing Zhang’s position from HKMAO director to deputy director was actually not a punishment to Zhang as he would stay as a ministerial level official, Lau said. Zhang would continue to help manage Hong Kong’s matters but without the power to make decisions.
The appointment of Xia, a close ally of Xi, as the new HKMAO chief was a key indicator that Xi could have full control over Hong Kong and Macau, said Yau Ching-yuen, a Hong Kong-based political analyst.
The public should focus on whether Beijing would remove Chief Executive Carrie Lam from her position during the coming two sessions, which refer to the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in early March, Yau said.
The two sessions could be postponed due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Reuters reported on February 5, citing unnamed sources. Some CPPCC members have reportedly proposed delaying the two sessions to late April or early May.
Apart from leading the HKMAO, Xia, 67, will continue to be the vice-chairman of the CPPCC. In 2003, Xia at 51 was promoted as the deputy party secretary in Zhejiang province to assist Xi, who was the party chief in the same province. In late 2012, Xia was promoted as the province’s party chief shortly after Xi became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China.
In 2013, Xia pushed forward a city renewal program to tear down a lot of old residential buildings and factories in Zhejiang. The destruction of more than 2,000 crosses and whole church buildings resulted in confrontations between local residents and police in the province. In 2018, Xia was “elected” as the vice-chairman of the CPPCC and became a Chinese leader.
Tanya Chan, a Civic Party lawmaker and the convenor of the pro-democracy camp, said she was worried that Beijing would continue to tighten its political control in Hong Kong, given that Xia had a poor human rights record during his time in Zhejiang.
Tam Yiu-chung, a member of the Standing Committee of the NPC, said due to his higher ranking than Zhang’s, Xia could help Hong Kong ask for more economic benefits from the central government.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a statement that she welcomed Xia’s appointment and she believed the HKMAO would continue to support the Hong Kong government’s work, implement “one country two systems” and push forward the development of Hong Kong in various ways.