Chairman Xi Sends Apparatchiks to Tame Hong Kong

Party functionaries likely to continue Beijing’s mistakes

With media channels preoccupied with the Novel Coronavirus epidemic and the Hong Kong government’s mishandling of it, China’s leader Xi Jinping has sent Luo Huining, 65, to take charge of the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong in January, while Xia Baolong, 67, has taken the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), in February. 

Both ex-provincial chiefs were plucked from retirement sinecures and strapped abruptly into blast-off: Mission Hong Kong.

Bao, the more senior, was secretary-general and vice-chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Luo was deputy in the financial and economic affairs office of the National People’s Council. Luo has been dropped into the Liaison Office trenches, while Xia will be the commanding general for the taming of Hong Kong. Both come with no prior involvement in Hong Kong affairs, and no personal networks.

Supreme leader Xi expects them to end the festering street protests, stop “foreign influence,’ shepherd the Article 23 National Security Bill and facilitate pro-Beijing legislators to retain their seats at the September Legislative Council elections. The mission, following last November’s electoral debacle in which pro-government candidates lost 17 of 18 district councils, is nothing short of an overhaul of failed governance to show Hong Kong how Beijing restores order and obedience.

That begs the question of why the most obvious failure responsible for the mess, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was spared the axe. It is not that anyone in Hong Kong or Beijing believes she is competent. The party will not concede to protest calls for her removal. That would be showing softness to dissidents, which is never an option for the party. Besides, Lam has always been the loyal marionette, who never let judgment or dignity get in the way of her obedience. Xi has praised her often enough.

Luo served in obscurity

Luo served 13 years from 2003-16 in the remote western province of Qinghai, one of the most under-developed regions. It shares borders with Tibet and Xinjiang. After 70 years of party rule, both adjacent regions are restive with a history of violent eruptions of ethnic revolt – now in sullen submission as the PLA watches them. In the case of Xinjiang, concentration camps with machine-gun towers are deemed necessary. Luo managed dutifully. He did not displease his superiors.

In 2016, Luo was transferred to the coal-mining province of Shanxi, which was wretchedly inefficient and rife with corruption. He was an outsider with no factional loyalties. With Xi’s anti-corruption campaign sweeping the country, Luo wrestled the endemic graft with steadfast determination. He earned Sec-Gen Xi’s approval as a reliable party man with no private agenda or ambition.

Xia the careerist  

In November 2003, Xia Baolong was appointed deputy party chief in Zhejiang province. His party boss was Xi Jinping. They worked closely for four years before Xi was appointed party chief of Shanghai. Xia’s talent for ingratiating himself to superiors worked. Xia became party chief on the recommendation of his departing boss. He was ever grateful.

The officials who worked with Xi in Zhejiang, proudly identify themselves as the “New Zhejiang Army” or the “Iron Army” whose role model was Xi Jinping. More than a dozen “Iron Army” comrades now orbit Xi at the politburo, or are assigned trouble-shooting missions, like former Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, parachuted into Hubei province, the coronavirus epicenter, as the new party chief.

As he left on reaching 65 in April 2017, Xia Baolong had fulsome praise for his former boss: “I am fortunate to be a member of the ‘Iron Army’ of Zhejiang. Each and every step of progress we achieved should be credited to general secretary Xi’s guidance and care.” He waxed on: “To speak from my heart, it is the greatest fortune of the nation, the party, and the people, to have Xi Jinping as the core of the party.”

Hangzhou G20 show

A highlight of Xia’s term was how he painted over and locked down Hangzhou in 2016 when China hosted the G20 meeting of world leaders. Money was lavished to make it magical, clean, pretty, and hermetically sealed. Boss Xi was pleased with Zhejiang and Hangzhou authorities for the praise from world leaders, about the clockwork logistics and attractive city tours. 

Not everyone was pleased. A civil servant, Guo Enping, posted his disaffection online, “Hangzhou, Shame on You!” claiming that 160 billion renminbi (US$22.4 billion) of public funds were wasted on a superficial facelift of the city. Guo was bundled into detention for 10 days to extract his self-criticism for “causing disturbances by fabricating rumors,” and sacked from his post. Party chief Xia would have overseen that.

Christian Cross Slasher

Xia grabbed domestic attention and international notoriety, when he ordered the toppling of over 1,000 Christian crosses on the roofs of churches in Wenzhou city, and the demolition of hundreds of church buildings deemed “illegal structures.” That vengefulness was prompted by Xi’s comment on a visit in 2013, that there were too many crosses and that “Western ideas” should be eliminated. Xia followed through.

Wenzhou is known as “China’s Jerusalem” with a high density of churches, steeples, crosses, and a zippy religious community living as cheerful citizens and civic-minded Christians. Xia dismissed the pleas of the Christian elders and their communities. They still do not know how they may have offended the party. He was needlessly harsh, stone-hearted, and dismissive.

Wen Kejian, an independent political analyst in Hangzhou, observed that “a lot of people celebrated when Xia left Zhejiang three years ago.” Even local party cadres were upset by the spite of the demolitions. Xia may have earned the deep disgust of ordinary folk, but ambitious cadres like him in a top-down authoritarian system, need to claw their way up the grease pole. The people below do not matter.

What can Hong Kong expect?

Luo Huining would likely be a diligent learner, who carries no baggage. It would be for him another assignment to be executed with focus and purpose, without needless drama. He does not have a history of grandiose speeches or ‘great leader’ exhortations. He is a functionary getting a job done, not a megalomaniac.

But Hong Kong is an entirely alien environment for Luo. He might as well be walking on Mars. He will be bewildered by its freewheeling press, pesky reporters, rude politicians and impolite students – all bizarre against mainland norms, where everyone knows his place. Despite 22 years of overlordship, there is no particular regard for mainland officials. None have earned respect since 1997.

Plenipotentiary Xia Baolong will have no qualms stomping on his liaison office teams, or threatening civil servants who question his bombast. Winning hearts and minds was never his concern. He may hector the protesting youth, academics, civic activists and pro-democracy politicians. It may have worked in Zhejiang well enough. He will have to stomach the lampooning, cartooning, and graffiti that Hong Kong typically showers on pompous bureaucrats.

The luckless liaison office officials provided false intelligence to Beijing repeatedly. The routing of pro-Beijing candidates in last November’s district council elections was the last straw. The liaison office assured Beijing the “silent majority” of voters would punish the youth for the street protest disruptions. The more important Legco elections are ahead in September.

The problem is that the liaison office fails to engage Hong Kong society. They do not understand its well-informed citizenry, prickly about their rights. The liaison office confines itself within the bubble of underground cells, pro-Beijing politicians, party newspapers, and “United Front” infiltrators. They continue as if they are still the sinister, secretive, subversive, joyless force in Hong Kong of the colonial period. 

If chairman Xi Jinping’s strongmen Luo Huining and Xia Baolong stick their heads in the sand like the liaison office, they will remain as clueless about what makes Hong Kong tick, and what arouses its fury. They have a mission to accomplish. They can open their minds, listen carefully, and reach out. Hong Kong society is unimpressed with bossiness.

The author is a Hong Kong businessman who prefers to remain anonymous