[Translation by Human Rights in China]
Just as the New Year begins, a long-simmering rumor of Beijing replacing the chief of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has finally been confirmed. Why would Beijing change horses at this precise point? My read: Beijing is eager to put a stop to the turmoil that has engulfed Hong Kong for more than six months and create “a new atmosphere for a new year.” Wang Zhimin, the former chief, was replaced for misjudging the extradition bill and, in particular, the the District Council elections in November. But he was just the scapegoat for these errors. In fact, besides the Liaison Office, Beijing possesses many other conduits for intelligence gathering, including Hong Kong-based informers working for the national security and military apparatuses and the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China. Thus, more accurately, it was not only the Liaison Office which misjudged Hong Kong’s situation, but also the highest authorities in Beijing—all of whom fell into the pit of information control cum self-feeding amplification, reaping in the end what they had themselves sown. Wang Zhimin merely took the blame.
As to why Luo Huining was chosen as Wang’s successor, there are two reasons. First, despite his utter lack of experience in Hong Kong and Macau affairs and inability to speak Cantonese and English (he has only briefly studied both), his selection fits the Party’s longstanding tradition of letting “the laymen lead the experts.” Also, Luo’s record of interactions with various camps within the Party without displaying strong factional affiliation made him, one can say, a candidate acceptable by all. Second, Luo is skillful in political maneuvering: As the Party Secretary of Shanxi Province (2016-2019), he received recognition from the central government for handling the province’s systemic corruption while maintaining stability in the local political arena. This is precisely the quality that is urgently needed for handling Hong Kong’s affairs now.
Prior to this appointment, Luo had already withdrawn from frontline duties—he had just left his post in Shanxi to serve as Vice-Chairman of the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress. This shows that Luo’s candidacy had not been a long-considered one, but a hasty decision resulting from an intra-Party contest. Otherwise, he would not have been given a new assignment within just two weeks of taking up his seat in the National People’s Congress. This highlights the difficulty in producing suitable candidates to lead the Hong Kong Liaison Office: either because the Hong Kong issue is such a hot potato that no one wants to pick up, or that it is a position vigorously fought over among various camps in the Party, with Luo prevailing in the end. I believe Xi Jinping picked Luo for his political loyalty, with hopes that Luo would stabilize the situation and at the same time clip the wings of mainland’s powerful cliques in Hong Kong, so that the city remains under Xi’s control.
And coincidentally, Luo’s emergence from what was in fact semi-retirement to assume a frontline post somewhat resembles that of Xu Jiatun, the director in 1983-1990 of Xinhua News Agency’s office in Hong Kong.* Before fate brought him to Hong Kong, Xu had been scheduled, through an internal decision, to step down as Party Secretary for Jiangsu Province. As head of Xinhua in Hong Kong, Xu also served as the Secretary of the Party’s Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee. Xu flourished in Hong Kong, receiving broad recognition for his work, and entered the “second spring” of his political career. Later on, his opposition to the June Fourth crackdown made him unacceptable to the Party. He was forced into exile and ultimately died overseas.
Can Luo Huining begin a “second spring” like Xu Jiatun did? It is difficult, I think, and any mishandling would render him a mere transitional figure. The situation faced by Luo is completely different from that faced by Xu. During his time, Xu sailed with the breeze of Reform and Opening Up, and there was space for him to show his capabilities. Luo, on the other hand, is going against the currents, with his hands and feet tied up and limited room in which to maneuver.
The reason lies in the fact that Xi Jinping has been heading backward in history and acting against the wishes of the people since he came to power. He has taken a hardline approach to domestic and diplomatic affairs and stubbornly fought everything. But he ended up kicking into an iron plate on the Hong Kong issue. Now he is stuck and mortified, with not only his image as a political strongman bankrupt, but also the added worry that Hong Kong’s unrest would spread onto the mainland in a domino effect. Now sitting in a dungeon, Xi neither dares to brazenly unleash a massacre in Hong Kong like Deng Xiaoping did in the June Fourth crackdown in 1989 in Beijing, for fear of overturning the communist ship already riddled with holes, nor wants to give up the selfish one-party rule and honor the promise of universal suffrage made to the Hong Kong people, fearing that he would be branded a prodigal and a sinner who wrecks the CPC enterprise.
For Xi Jinping, whoever settles the turmoil in Hong Kong is the hero, and whoever fails would find being replaced an inescapable fate. This resembles what Deng Xiaoping did in the 1989 Democracy Movement: supporting the person able to suppress it, and making the person unable to do so the scapegoat. The same was true of Mao Zedong during the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution. In the end, Mao sacrificed the "Little Three" of the Central Cultural Revolution Group**—Wang Li (王力), Guan Feng (关锋), and Qi Benyu (戚本禹)—in order to end the turmoil. The crux of the Hong Kong problem is that Xi Jinping's established policy will never change, and that the violent suppression by the Hong Kong police for more than half a year has served only to completely alienate the Hong Kong people. Under these circumstances, Luo Huining is dancing in shackles, and quelling the turmoil in Hong Kong is a mission impossible. If Luo further promotes the national security legislation and attempts changes in the education system in accordance with Beijing's intent, it would inevitably trigger a backlash from the Hong Kong people, producing a result unlikely to be better than that facing Carrie Lam now.
It should be said that Luo himself knows this very well. He appeared trepidatious when he took office, as if treading on thin ice. As shown in videos of his first press conference on January 6, his legs were slightly trembling (see video: 0: 32-0: 42; 2: 22-2: 33), his anxiety in plain display. At best, he was only able to say a few pliable words publicly, such as "sincerely wishing Hong Kong well," with no mention of stopping the turmoil. But deep down, he still has to resolutely implement Beijing's established policy—using police violence without leniency whatsoever and beating the Hong Kong people into submission were the true message for the New Year.
My conclusion is: the odds are against Luo Huining, making it tough for him to become another Xu Jiatun.
*Before the 1997 handover, the Xinhua News Agency office in Hong Kong was the de facto representative office of Beijing in the city.
**During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, the Central Cultural Revolution Group replaced the CPC Politburo and functioned as the highest CPC, state, and military authority in China.