Why Hong Kong conflicts could worsen under new HKMAO chief

February 20, 2020 08:00
Xia Baolong's appointment as the director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office suggests that Beijing wants a tighter grip over Hong Kong, observers say. Photo: Bloomberg

As Hong Kong people were busy hunting for face masks, toilet paper and liquid disinfectant, Beijing announced a new chief for the State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO), Xia Baolong.

It also announced a reorganization of the HKMAO and the Liaison Office. Xia, 67, will be the senior official in charge of Hong Kong affairs. Zhang Xiaoming, the erstwhile director of the HKMAO will now report to Xia after being demoted to the deputy director position. Also reporting to Xia is Luo Huining, the recently-appointed head of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong. 

“I had the opportunity to be part of the ‘army of steel’ of Zhejiang,” Xia said in 2017, when he left the province after 14 years, after serving as deputy Communist Party secretary from 2003 to 2012, and then as Party Secretary from 2012 to 2017. “From the bottom of my heart, I can say that it is the greatest chance for the nation, the party and the people to have Xi Jinping at the center of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

Xia and Luo have a similar profile. They have no knowledge or experience of Hong Kong or south China; they do not speak Cantonese. They had little opportunity to know Hong Kong people, other than business people who invested in the provinces where they worked.

To an outsider, it seems incredible that, at this most critical moment in Hong Kong’s life since 1997, Beijing has chosen to appoint as overseers two people with no knowledge of the complex and divided territory which operates in a completely different way to mainland cities.

During his five years as party chief of Zhejiang, Xia is best known for overseeing the destruction of more than 1,000 crosses and dozens of churches, both Protestant and Catholic, official and unofficial.

He launched the campaign after Xi, already CCP chief, visited Wenzhou in 2013. Xi was shocked to see several churches and crosses, especially on the top of mountains. Wenzhou was considered the “Jerusalem of China”, with about 10 percent of the city’s population regularly attending a Protestant congregation. It represented the highest proportion of Christians of any city in the nation.

Church members recorded the destructions and posted them on the Internet. The churches were mainly demolished in the middle of the night. Armed police accompanied giant cranes and demolition teams. They had to break through lines of the faithful who surrounded the buildings, praying and singing and beseeching the workers not to go ahead. In some cases, there was violence and arrests. The police detained ministers.

One believer watched the destruction in less than a day of the Sanjiang church, built at a cost of 30 million renminbi over six years; it was designed like a Mormon tabernacle with a giant red cross. “Words cannot express how traumatic it was. I kept thinking of Jesus’ words – ‘they know not what they do. They will surely be judged by God,” he said.

These pictures were shown around the world, presenting a very negative image of China and its suppression of any form of dissent.

Zhejiang became a model – other provinces followed suit. So, while Xia became the public face of the demolition, he was only following the orders of his boss in Beijing.

This answers the question of why Xi chose Xia and Luo. It is because they are completely loyal to him and have no personal or emotional links to Hong Kong. Previously, the HKMAO and Liaison Office were staffed by officials who had many Hong Kong links and were appointed during the era of Jiang Zemin.

Xia and Luo will offer no change of policy. There will be no independent inquiry into the eight months of Hong Kong protests, no political reform and no amnesty for those arrested.

One of Xia’s most important missions will be to decide whether to retain Carrie Lam and, if not, who should replace her as Hong Kong's chief executive. Does anyone want the job?

The Financial Times reported last year that Lam had sought to resign, but Beijing rejected her demand. Meanwhile, it was also suggested that Lam could be replaced in March, when the National People’s Congress (NPC) would hold its annual meeting and major decisions are announced.

But the coronavirus has upset all these calculations. The NPC is likely to be postponed, given the problems related to ensuring the health and safety of the 3,000 delegates and their supporting staff, and also issues related to safe travel to Beijing.

The epidemic, the most serious crisis of the Xi Jinping era, is consuming all the time and energy of the leaders in Beijing. Xia may decide that, however unpopular Lam is and however poorly she has handled the outbreak in Hong Kong, it may be wiser to leave her and her team in place until the end of the epidemic.

Xia has orders to implement the National Security Law, make Hong Kong lawmakers loyal to Beijing and introduce ‘patriotic education’ in schools – anathema to a majority of people in Hong Kong.

All this means that the deep conflicts exposed by the protests will only intensify. Right now, people are busy looking for masks and trying to block the virus. But, when this crisis is over, the old conflicts will surface again. Xia and Luo won't do anything to heal them.

– Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.