Asia Outsider to shake up Hong Kong

Outsider to shake up Hong Kong

The appointment of Luo Huining as director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office will likely lead to a revamp of senior officials in the Liaison office and Hong Kong government

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There’s a new sheriff in town, and it’s likely heads are going to roll. The appointment of Luo Huining as director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office will likely lead to a revamp of senior officials in the Liaison office and Hong Kong government, possibly including the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Luo’s appointment as China’s chief representative to the Asian financial hub may possibly herald corruption investigations of the Liaison office and/or some Hong Kong tycoons.

On January 4, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced on its website that Luo replaced Wang Zhimin as director of the Liaison Office. The fact that Luo is 65 years old, the retirement age of Chinese officials,  and yet he replaced the 62-year old Wang who served less than two years and three months in this post, highlights the urgency of the mission with which Beijing has entrusted Luo.

The prospect of Wang’s removal was predicted in earlier media reports including a Reuters story on November 26, 2019. On the same day, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied the Reuters story as fake news. Weeks later, Wang’s departure became a reality.

If this happened with Wang, it can happen with Carrie Lam. On October 23, 2019, the Financial Times said the Chinese government was planning to replace Carrie Lam as Hong Kong chief executive by March. On the same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the Financial Times report as a rumour. Since the removal of Wang has disproved the foreign ministry’s denial, the prospect of Carrie Lam’s resignation in the coming months becomes all the more plausible.

I had written a column in the Independent on October 10, 2019, suggesting Beijing replace Carrie Lam with a mainland Chinese official like Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

Things did not turn out as my column suggested, but my column was not too far off the mark. Luo will effectively run Hong Kong, since Carrie Lam is a lame duck whose authority has been eroded by the protests which have rocked the city for over six months. My column suggested a mainland Chinese official temporarily govern Hong Kong and then hand over the reins to a new chief executive. This will not happen, but one possible reason for Luo’s appointment is to oversee Carrie Lam’s replacement by a new chief executive.

The replacement of Wang by Luo as Liaison Office director is probably a prelude to other liaison officers being replaced. The Reuters story of November 26, 2019, quoted an unnamed Chinese official saying, “The Liaison Office has been mingling with the rich people and mainland elites in the city and isolated itself from the people. This needs to be changed.”

For instance, Song Lin, when he was chairman of China Resources, a Chinese state-owned firm headquartered in Hong Kong, used to entertain Chinese officials in lavish dinners in the company’s offices in Hong Kong, according to a report. Since 2017, Song has been serving a 14-year sentence in a mainland Chinese prison for corruption.

Don’t be surprised if other Hong Kong tycoons come under corruption investigations with the new Liaison Office director in charge. Luo is unlikely to get chummy with the city’s tycoons. Unlike his predecessors, Luo has no prior experience in Hong Kong-related duties. He is the first Liaison Office director to have governed Chinese provinces. He was party secretary of Qinghai province (the most senior official of a Chinese province) from March 2013 to June 2016, then party secretary of Shanxi province from June 2016 to November 2019.

These two northern inland provinces received far less Hong Kong investments than other mainland Chinese regions like Guangdong province, hence Luo has little or no close ties to Hong Kong businessmen.

Luo’s track record in Shanxi suggests massive personnel changes and anti-graft probes looming in Hong Kong. He was appointed Shanxi party secretary in 2016 amidst a corruption crackdown in this province, which saw one third of its top officials investigated. Luo stabilized the situation and replaced the many fallen officials in this province.

During his tenure in Shanxi, “he clamped down on a large scale corruption that was seriously weighing on the local governance. His anti-corruption crusade played an important role in helping the province enter a new era,” said an article in the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, on January 4.

Although former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has been friendly with Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, the territory’s tycoons should not expect sympathy or support from the current Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While protests hit Hong Kong in the second half of 2019, Chinese state media placed part of the blame for the unrest on the city’s housing problems. Developers took the heat for sky-high property prices from state media in 2019, while Li, who did not unambiguously take Beijing’s side over the protests, had a war of words with Chinese government social media.

Luo’s tenure as an official in Qinghai from 2003 to 2016 should be useful for his task of ending Hong Kong’s protests. This multiracial province has a Tibetan population which has been protesting since at least 2010.

Luo was a trouble shooter in Qinghai and Shanxi. He will be a trouble shooter calling the shots in Hong Kong.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG

Read related: Carrie Lam should be replaced by Chinese official

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