New chief of China's Hong Kong liaison office hopes city returns to 'right path'

Mr Luo Huining, the new head of China's liaison office in Hong Kong, is the most senior mainland official based in the territory. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - The new head of China's liaison office in Hong Kong, the most senior mainland official based in the territory, said on Monday (Jan 6) that China was the strongest backer of the Asian financial hub, which he hoped would return to "the right path".

The liaison office, which reports to China's State Council or Cabinet, is a platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city, and has faced criticism for misjudging the situation in the Chinese-controlled city, which has faced more than six months of pro-democracy protests.

In his first comments to the media since Saturday's announcement by China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security that he had replaced Wang Zhimin, 65-year-old Luo Huining said he was "not unfamiliar with the city".

Mr Wang had held the post since 2017.

Luo's appointment is seen as a sign of Beijing's frustration with how Mr Wang handled the crisis and makes Wang the shortest serving liaison office director since the city's 1997 return to Chinese rule.

"Hong Kong is the pearl of the orient, an international metropolis. Hong Kong compatriots have made important contributions to the reform and opening up and modernisation of our country. The motherland will always be Hong Kong's strongest backer," Mr Luo told reporters.

"In the past half a year, the Hong Kong situation has been worrying. Everyone eagerly hopes Hong Kong can return to the right path."

Mr Luo said the "one country, two systems" type of governance that guarantees Hong Kong freedoms not available on the mainland was the city's greatest advantage and that the basic law, the city's mini-constitution, will be "fully implemented."

A loyalist of President Xi Jinping, Mr Luo is known for enforcing Communist Party discipline. His appointment comes less than a month after he was given a different job, in the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the national legislature.

In November, Reuters reported exclusively that Beijing was considering potential replacements for Mr Wang, who had come under criticism for failing to foresee the public reaction to a now-withdrawn extradition bill or adequately report upwards on the sentiment on the ground.

Until November, Mr Luo was the top official of China's ruling Communist Party in the northern province of Shanxi, where he had been tasked with cleaning up a graft-ridden, coal-rich region where corruption was once likened to cancer.

Before moving to Shanxi, Mr Luo had been the top party official in the western province of Qinghai.

Protests in Hong Kong escalated in June over a now-withdrawn extradition Bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial to the mainland, where justice is controlled by the Communist Party.

They have since evolved into a broad pro-democracy movement, with anger growing over a perception that Beijing is meddling too much into Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy upon returning from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies meddling and blames the West for fomenting unrest.

Analysts have interpreted Mr Luo's appointment as a punishment for Mr Wang, rather than a signal for a change in the central government's attitude to the protests.

"Clearly Wang is being dismissed given the Hong Kong chaos. He either didn't see it coming nor could he stop or limit it, either way he is gone," said Mr Fraser Howie, Director of Newedge Financial in Singapore. "What can Luo do differently, the answer is nothing unless Xi Jinping allows some move on the political changes."

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