China replaces head of Hong Kong Liaison Office amid ongoing protests

China has replaced the head of its Hong Kong Liaison Office, the most senior mainland political official based in the Chinese-held territory, following more than six months of anti-government protests in the special administrative region.

China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said on its website late on Saturday that Wang Zhimin, who had held the post since 2017, had been replaced by 65-year-old Luo Huining, who until November was the top official of China’s ruling Communist Party in the northern province of Shanxi.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 Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, the worst crisis 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 Hong Kong, and has come in for criticism in Hong Kong and mainland China for misjudging the situation.

Wang is the shortest serving Liaison office director since 1997.

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.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, right, raises a toast with the former director of China’s Liaison Office Wang Zhimin, centre, at a reception marking the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong special administrative region, on July 1, 2019. (Zhang Wei/CNS/Reuters)

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.

The replacement follows mass protests which 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.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was promised a separate economic and legal system until 1997, as well as limited autonomy over decision making.

Hong Kong leader Carrie 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 “uphold the rule of law” during the protests of recent months.

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