In sacking the head of its Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Beijing has made its first significant move to change the narrative after eight months of demonstrations and disruption. No one can yet forecast what the replacement of Wang Zhimin by the recently retired party boss of Shanxi province, Luo Huining, will mean in practice but some significant change in direction can be expected.
Wang, who has been given a non-job as Deputy Chief of the Central Institute for Party History Research, was faulted for consistently underestimating the popular support behind the demonstrations, which have brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets and resulted in widespread violence on the part of both the police and young demonstrators. Hundreds of protesters, mainly youth, have been arrested.
In particular, Wang failed to foresee the crushing defeat suffered by pro-government candidates in local elections in November. Pro-democracy forces swept the Anti-government forces swept 17 of 18 District Councils, tripling their seats from 124 to 388. They captured 117 District Council subsector seats in the 1,200-member Election Committee. Pro-Beijing parties and independents won only 62 seats, a net loss of more than 242.
But finding solutions to the problems revealed by the protests will be extremely difficult, particularly in the context of a Beijing emphasizing nationalism and centralization. The protesters laid out five key demands including withdrawal of a bill providing for the extradition to the mainland of Hong Kong citizens, an investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, the release of arrested protesters, a complete retraction of the official characterization of the protests as "riots", and the ouster of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Although the bill has been withdrawn and the characterization as riots has been partly withdrawn, protesters have not been mollified. Thousands of protesters took to the streets again on January 4.
Luo does have experience of government in a way that Wang, a lifelong cog in the bureaucratic system, did not. Before becoming party boss in Shanxi, he was governor of Qinghai, a vast but thinly populated province with a large non-Han, particularly Tibetan, minorities whose aspirations for more autonomy he repressed. In mineral-rich Shanxi he was credited with enforcing party discipline and reducing rampant corruption.
Yet how these experiences will help or hinder his task in Hong Kong is hard to tell given that even sterner measures against protests will likely create further dissatisfaction and the sense that the One-Country, Two-System principle is being further eroded. That cannot be of benefit to Hong Kong’s economic situation, with its separate status as a financial and hub and free-trading port being questioned overseas.
One of Luo's first tasks could well be to try to identify a successor to Chief Executive Lam, whose ouster has long been sought by many in the pro-government camp as well as the pro-democracy forces. Lam herself has been willing to resign but being an obedient servant has remained in the job while on a day-to-day basis government has been left in the hands of an increasingly intolerant and sometimes brutal police force.
If there is to be a change in the chief executive it is now expected in March to coincide with a meeting of the National People’s Congress. A change would still have to go through a constitutional process of election by the Beijing-friendly Election Commission but a contested election is unlikely.
The Executive Council, which is supposed to set major policies in conjunction with the chief executive, is also due for a makeover. A collection of tycoon family scions, retired top bureaucrats and stalwarts from the pro-Beijing political parties as well as senior members of the administration, it is not only out of touch but incapable of initiatives.
Luo will, however, have to tread carefully not to be seen to be making the chief executive seem an even more of a puppet of the Liaison Office than is the case already.
The greatest unknown, however, is whether Xi Jinping has enough confidence in Luo to give him a free hand to address the causes of discontent and Hong Kong’s sense of alienation from the mainland, or whether he is Xi’s man with a big whip to enforce “patriotism” and take increased powers to crush dissent and remove the “foreign influences” supposedly behind the protests. It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. After eight months of futile attempts to curtail the protests, it may be time for a new approach.