China replaces its Hong Kong and Macau affairs office chief Zhang Xiaoming

In a photo taken on Oct 13, 2016, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Zhang Xiaoming attends the funeral of Hong Kong property group New World Development Cheng Yu-tung. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China has replaced the head of its office overseeing matters in Hong Kong, Mr Zhang Xiaoming, making him the most senior Beijing-appointed official to lose his job in the wake of sometimes-violent anti-government protests in the Chinese-controlled territory.

China's Human Resources Ministry announced on Thursday (Feb 13) that Mr Zhang would be removed as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), to be replaced by Mr Xia Baolong, a 67-year-old vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Hong Kong has been rocked by months of pro-democracy, anti-government protests that began in early June, over an extradition Bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Protesters have sought to pressure the local government with a combination of peaceful mass marches as well as more violent actions that have seen mainland-linked businesses vandalised, universities seized and the city's transport networks shut down for days.

Mr Zhang's removal follows Beijing's move in January to replace the head of its Hong Kong liaison office.

He will remain with the HKMAO as deputy director in charge of daily operations, the ministry said.

Mr Xia served as Chinese President Xi Jinping's deputy when Mr Xi was Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang province from 2003 to 2007.

"Xi now has his proteges in place over Hong Kong for the first time," said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at the Hong Kong Baptist University.

"While that may give Hong Kong 'face', it is certainly going to put Hong Kong under more political pressure," Prof Cabestan said.

A campaign in 2015 to tear down underground churches in Zhejiang gave Mr Xia a reputation as a hard-liner.

"Xia is not a moderate and he has shown himself to be a zealous servant of Xi Jinping. We can expect that to continue," Prof Cabestan said.

Mr Zhang had backed the controversial extradition Bill, telling a visiting Hong Kong delegation how urgent it was that Hong Kong pass the measure, Reuters reported in December.

The Bill was scrapped after mass demonstrations, and the protests evolved into calls for greater democracy, posing the gravest popular challenge to Mr Xi since he came to power.

Beijing also said on Thursday that it had appointed as deputy directors of the HKMAO Mr Luo Huining, who became the new liaison office head in January, and Mr Fu Ziying, the director of the Macau liaison office.

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