China changed its top representative to Hong Kong in the first major leadership reshuffle since anti-government protests broke out in the city seven months ago, unexpectedly replacing Wang Zhimin with a "strongman" party stalwart who has no experience in Hong Kong as its new top official based in the city, signaling its intention to restore law and order after almost seven months of social unrest. Luo Huining, the former party leader of Shanxi province, has been named as the new director of the central government’s liaison office in the city, Xinhua reported on Saturday.
According to the SCMP, Wang, who was blamed in some quarters for the unrest, will be given a dignified exit: he will be recalled to Beijing and reassigned to another position unrelated to Hong Kong affairs; the Hong Kong publication notes that the reshuffle should not be seen as a punishment for Wang but a change of strategy.
Wang was liaison office director since September 2017. His term of two years and three months made him the shortest-serving head of the office since the return of Hong Kong to the mainland. Before taking the position in Hong Kong, he served as director of the liaison office in Macau for around a year. One reason for Wang's short tenure: his inability to normalize the situation in Hong Kong which has been in the grip of protests since June last year, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill before morphing into a wider anti-government campaign that has been marked by mass rallies and often-violent clashes.
As for Luo’s appointment, it appears to presage a new phase in Beijing's crackdown of ongoing Hong Kong protests.
Having reached the retirement age of 65 in October, he was just named on December 28 as the deputy director of the financial and economic affairs committee of the national people’s congress – a position usually reserved for retired officials. Luo served for more than a decade in China’s far-flung western province Qinghai – one of the poorest regions populated by ethnic minorities - and became deputy chairman of the financial and economic committee of the National People’s Congress last month. According to Bloomberg, Chinese media credited him with bringing Shanxi back to its feet, enforcing the central government’s campaign to purge corruption and weed out disloyal officials.
In Shanxi, Luo excelled himself and impressed the top leadership by swiftly weeding out corruption and overhauling the government. He is among a selected few Chinese officials who could boast the experience of having managed two provinces, each with the population of a midsized European country.
It is this "strongman" background that made Luo China's perfect candidate to take over Hong Kong, even though he has never held any position directly related to Hong Kong before. Apart from one business trip to Hong Kong in 2018, he has no known connections here.
"Luo seems to have had the experience to end chaos and restore stability in Shanxi,” said Victoria Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “Since the outbreak of anti-extradition protests, Beijing has been trying to rein in Hong Kong," and "it’s not clear why a strongman like him was not picked earlier."
Luo will be the first Hong Kong liaison director with such rich local experience. Most of his predecessors were specialist bureaucrats who worked in the central government before taking up the Hong Kong assignment.
“One key consideration is that Luo does not have connections with Hong Kong’s business and other community, therefore his work will not be complicated by any relationship,” the source said.
Li Xiaobing, an expert on Beijing’s policies on Hong Kong at Nankai University in Tianjin, said the choice highlighted Beijing’s will to break the deadlock in Hong Kong.
“The problem of choosing someone from the Hong Kong and Macau system is they will be constrained by the existing frameworks and relationships,” he said. “His past experiences showed that he is capable of providing out-of-box solutions.”
Luo, who held a PhD in Economics, is known for his efforts in curbing corruption and boosting economies in less-developed regions in Anhui, Qinghai and Shanxi. A Shanxi official who had worked under Luo told the Post: “He seldom raises his voice. But he is very determined and demanding when he wants to get things done. No jokes.”