FILE PHOTO: Communist Party Secretary of Shanxi province Luo Huining attends a session of his province on the second day of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
Luo Huining was previously Communist party boss of Shanxi province © Reuters

Beijing has replaced its top representative in Hong Kong, parachuting in a high-ranking veteran with no experience working in the Asian financial hub in the first major reshuffle since protests began more than six months ago.

China’s State Council announced on Saturday that 62-year-old Wang Zhimin, who had worked his way up the ranks of China’s Hong Kong bureaucracy over a decade before becoming head of its Liaison Office in 2017, has been succeeded by Luo Huining, who was previously boss of the northern province of Shanxi and higher in the Communist party hierarchy than Mr Wang.

Mr Luo‘s appointment marks the first time that anyone without direct experience of Hong Kong has been appointed to the top Communist party position in the territory. The Liaison Office reports to China’s State Council and is the vehicle through which Beijing can influence policy in the semi-autonomous territory.

Two people who speak regularly with the Liaison Office told the FT that the replacement indicated Beijing’s displeasure with Mr Wang.

“He’s been kicked out . . . If this mess [the Hong Kong protests] hadn’t happened he would have stayed until he was 65, at least,” said one. The other speculated that the move was to make Mr Wang take the blame for what had happened in Hong Kong.

Ching Cheong, a veteran China watcher based in Hong Kong agreed: “I believe it’s a way to hold Wang accountable for the mess in Hong Kong.”

Mr Luo — who at 65 is the age when officials of his ranking usually step down from positions of responsibility at provincial level — has been a full member of the Communist party’s Central Committee, a top decision-making body of about 200 people, since 2012.

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based independent political commentator, said the Chinese leadership was looking to take more direct control of Hong Kong policy with the appointment and to make a clean break from the territory’s bureaucracy, which Beijing sees as having failed to handle the protests effectively.

“It’s always been the same group of people managing Hong Kong and Macau affairs, but their abilities are now in doubt,” he said. “They did not want to take responsibility and produced self-serving reports that misled Beijing when making decisions about the situation in Hong Kong.”

Mr Luo’s age and his lack of a clear allegiance to a particular political faction could mean that the appointment is an “experiment”, Mr Zhang added: “If he does well then he can keep going. If he does badly then he can be sacrificed without it being considered too much of a pity.”

As party boss of coal-rich Shanxi province, Mr Luo oversaw President Xi Jinping’s sweeping campaign to rid the region of what was dubbed “landslide-like” corruption. He left the post in November. Prior to Shanxi, he was head of Qinghai province in north-west China.

Beijing has publicly maintained strong support for its top officials in Hong Kong, but a series of mis-steps and a failure to quell violent protests by Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has led the Communist party to consider an “interim” leader, the FT reported in October.

Ms Lam in a Saturday statement welcomed Mr Luo’s appointment and thanked Mr Wang for his “staunch support” during the protests.

No new position for Mr Wang has been announced. His two most recent predecessors were later promoted. Zhang Xiaoming, who vacated the office in 2017, is the current head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a division of the State Council that oversees the two former colonies.

Beijing last month denied a report by Reuters claiming that they were considering removing Mr Wang due to dissatisfaction with his handling of the demonstrations.

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