Sacking puts unrest sea change in the air

Editorial | Mary Ma 6 Jan 2020

The replacement of Wang Zhimin, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong until his career demise on Saturday, with an ex-provincial party chief was not unexpected but it still managed to carry an element of surprise.

The first came courtesy of speculation in local political circles for quite some time now that his removal was imminent due to the unrest that has gripped the SAR for more than seven months. It became a fait accompli on Saturday, with Xinhua News Agency reporting that former Shanxi party secretary Luo Huining, 65, is succeeding Wang as director of the central government liaison office.

Xinhua did not say where Wang was headed next, but news website BastillePost said he is taking up the vice-presidency of the Party History and Literature Research Institute of the communist party, which is far removed from the political clout he had wielded in Hong Kong since September 2017.

The eyebrows went up primarily because Beijing has picked someone who's about to retire. Luo was made the deputy head of a committee under the National People's Congress only a week ago after accomplishing his mission of cleaning up the Shanxi, a coal-rich region where corruption was endemic.

Had Luo always been poised to replace Wang, it would have been unlikely for him to be given just a ceremonial role at a NPC committee. The decision to recall Luo - who is already in Hong Kong - from retirement was most probably reached in the past week and acted upon with all the haste that the political crisis in Hong Kong demands.

Does the de facto sacking of Beijing's top representative here also signify a shift in Beijing's policy toward the SAR?

That is not improbable, and things could change rapidly with a expression of goodwill from Beijing.

However, it would be premature to say if more heads will roll over a crisis that may have lost a bit of momentum but none of the underlying political drive that impels it. Since the wave of anti-government protests erupted in June and snowballed into civil unrest in the intervening months, Beijing has given Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor a long leash to find a solution that ends the SAR's worst crisis since 1997. With no turning point in sight, does it make sense to let the situation drag on when it's so obvious that the government is totally clueless about how to end the crisis.

The situation facing Beijing is no less challenging than the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s. Beijing, during that period, assigned its Jiangsu provincial party chief Xu Jiatun to take over the reins at Xinhua, Beijing's de facto consulate at that time, making him China's highest ranking official in the then colony.

We may expect Luo to play a more affirmative role in the SAR, although this doesn't necessarily mean his public profile will be high.

With the Sino-US trade war expected to enter its second phase in a few months, it is in Beijing's national interest to protect Hong Kong's function as an international financial center so that mainland companies can continue to raise foreign capital for the nation.

And with Alibaba's return for a secondary listing here, more Chinese companies currently listed in the US are expected to follow suit. Hong Kong is that rare window to global high finance that can be smashed if the crisis is allowed to drag on.

Will some of the protesters' five demands - including an independent inquiry - meet with a positive response to cool the heat? The situation bears monitoring.

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