BEIJING • The Chinese government has replaced its top envoy to Hong Kong, state media reported yesterday, in the most significant personnel change since pro-democracy protests broke out in the city nearly seven months ago.
The removal of Mr Wang Zhimin, the head of the Liaison Office which represents the central government in Hong Kong, comes as the city grapples with its biggest political crisis in decades.
"Wang Zhimin has been dismissed from his position as head of the Liaison Office" for Hong Kong affairs and was replaced by Mr Luo Huining, state broadcaster CCTV said, without giving details.
Mr Luo served as Shanxi party secretary from 2016 until November last year. He was made deputy chairman of the financial and economic committee of the National People's Congress a month later.
Millions of Hong Kongers have come out for months on the streets in often violent demonstrations demanding greater democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous city in the strongest challenge yet to Beijing's rule since the return of the former British colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong is ruled under the "one country, two systems" principle, which gives the territory rights unseen on mainland China, but protesters say such rights are steadily being eroded.
Mr Wang, 62, was the most senior mainland political official stationed in Hong Kong and has held the post since 2017. Before this, he was director of China's liaison office in Macau.
With his removal, he is the shortest-serving liaison office director in Hong Kong since 1997.
With support for the protesters undiminished after months of violent unrest, speculation of Mr Wang's removal from the position has been growing, particularly after the pro-government candidates suffered a resounding defeat in district council elections in November.
"Wang's dismissal was long predicted because he appeared to be associated too closely with the pro-Beijing elites and business leaders, without reaching out widely to all social sectors especially the poor and the needy," Mr Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong-based political commentator, said yesterday.
"Also, his miscalculations of Hong Kong" may have led to his downfall, "especially after the 2019 district council elections", he said.
Mr Luo worked for the Anhui government between 1982 and 1999. In 2010, he was appointed governor of Qinghai before being made party secretary in the province in 2013.
Meanwhile, local media reported that luxury brand Louis Vuitton is closing a major store in a high-end Hong Kong mall often targeted by pro-democracy protesters.
The international retailer plans to shut its shop in the financial hub's Times Square mall after its landlord, Wharf Real Estate Investment, refused to lower the rent, according to the South China Morning Post's report on Friday.
The store in the commercial heartland of Causeway Bay, one of the brand's eight shopfronts in the city, occupies 10,000 sq ft of prime second-floor space in the mall.
Monthly rent reportedly costs an estimated HK$5 million (S$867,000).
Louis Vuitton Hong Kong, Times Square and Wharf have not responded to inquiries from AFP.
The government blames violent protests for disrupting tourism and affecting consumption sentiments.
Luxury brands in Hong Kong have been relying heavily on a large influx of mainland Chinese tourists, which, on the other hand, has been a problem that local residents have complained about for years.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG