China names new representative in HK, but what next?

January 07, 2020 08:00
With China’s liaison office in Hong Kong getting a new chief, will we see a fresh approach on handling the territory's months-long unrest? Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong marked the beginning of the 2020s with a huge anti-government march that organizers said was bigger than the million-person march of June 9 last year. The event began peacefully and ended in violence. The police said rioters hijacked the demonstration, prompting law enforcement to order an early end to the protest.

On the fourth day of the New Year, China suddenly announced the replacement of its top official in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, the first official to be removed since the outbreak of Hong Kong's anti-government protests last summer.

By ordering the New Year’s Day rally to end early, the police turned an authorized march into an unlawful assembly. Four hundred people were arrested that day, most for illegal assembly.

While Wang, who has been involved in Hong Kong affairs for 15 years, was removed as director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, his successor, Luo Huining, has had little experience in such matters. As party secretary of Shanxi province, he led a delegation in 2018 to discuss cooperation between the province and Hong Kong.

Wang’s departure wasn’t completely unexpected. Reuters reported in November in the wake of an overwhelming democratic sweep in district elections that Beijing was considering possible successors for him. But the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office denied the report and accused the news agency of being unprofessional and irresponsible.

There is a general sense that the Liaison Office bears some responsibility for the current crisis, at least in not providing Beijing with an accurate picture of the situation in Hong Kong. The office is suspected of reporting only what it thinks officials in Beijing want to hear.

The Liaison Office, as a matter of fact, has a long history of misreporting the Hong Kong situation. A similar thing happened in 2003, when half a million people protested against a national security law that many saw as undermining rights and freedoms. The law was withdrawn and, in its aftermath, the Liaison Office falsely reported that protesters had been paid to demonstrate by Americans, a charge that is again being spread during the current crisis.

Although the decision to replace Wang may have been made in November, the choice of his successor seems to have been a last-minute decision. Luo turned 65 in October, the normal retirement age, and on Dec. 28 – seven days before his appointment as director of the Liaison Office – he was named vice chairman of the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, a position often held by retired officials.

Question: What happened between Dec. 28 and Jan. 4? Answer: The New Year’s Day protest, which organizers reported was bigger than the June 9, 2019 march. That, following the unexpected electoral upset in late November, may have shocked Beijing into immediate action to relieve Wang of his post.

In fact, it is highly possible that Beijing now realizes that the entire Hong Kong reporting network is tainted, and feels it is better to have an outsider come in who is not part of the old system.

Moreover, Luo’s financial and economic expertise is likely to prove useful. Beijing may want him to help a faltering Hong Kong economy get back on track, no doubt through strengthening ties with the mainland.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement welcoming Luo to Hong Kong and said she expects that the Liaison Office and her administration will continue to work together.

This is an opportunity for Lam to take the initiative and make a serious attempt to resolve the political crisis that has beset her government for seven months.

So far, she has made no effort to seek a compromise with protesters, simply saying that their demands, such as for a commission of inquiry into police behavior and for an amnesty for protesters, are unacceptable.

Actually, the government can easily set up a commission of inquiry. The commission can be asked to look into both police and protesters’ actions rather than only those of the police.

Similarly, forgiveness doesn’t have to be limited to one side. The police need not fear that they will be victimized.

But a commission of inquiry is needed to establish the truth of what happened so that there can be closure for the community as a whole. Chief Executive Lam can discuss with the new Liaison Office director ways of dealing with the crisis, taking the protesters’ demands seriously and coming forward with her own ideas. The New Year presents new opportunities, which should not be frittered away.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.