Hong Kong’s best-known China watchers and commentators are in unanimous disagreement. The subject is Beijing’s sudden appointment of a new man to head its representative Liaison Office here.  Arriving as he did in the middle of Hong Kong’s ongoing unresolved political uprising, observers can’t decide whether the appointment is good news or bad for Hong Kong, the protesters, or their movement.

The new man in town is Luo Huining, transferred suddenly and without advance notice soon after taking up a new pre-retirement position in Beijing. At 65, Luo is nearing the end of of a long and successful career. During the past decade, he has served as Communist Party chief and governor of two inland Chinese provinces.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

A native of Anhui province in central China, he came up through the ranks, earned a PhD in economics and survived the political turmoil of recent decades to become a trusted and effective provincial leader.  During his last assignment, he was credited especially with tackling corruption, a signature issue of China’s current leader Xi Jinping.

An impressive resume in all respects, save one: Luo Huining has had little experience of the world outside China, whether as a student or on assignment.  The lapse extends to international relations and includes all of Hong Kong’s past history and present controversies.

He replaces Wang Zhimin, who headed the office for just over two years.  Liaison Office directors usually stay longer and since Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule, all have come from within the specialised Hong Kong-Macau administrative system.

Despite recent rumours of his professional demise, Wang’s transfer was unexpected and abrupt.  He was re-assigned to a lesser post in Beijing, allegedly due to deficiencies in Liaison Office work.  The pundits and unidentified sources agree at least on this point.

Luo Huining. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Liaison Office shortcomings are said to be in monitoring and reporting back to Beijing on Hong Kong’s current political insurgency, with particular reference to the landslide victory of pro-insurgent pro-democracy candidates in the November 24 District Councils election. 

Liaison Office personnel are not supposed to meddle in Hong Kong’s political affairs, but their active behind-the-scenes election-time support for candidates from the pro-Beijing pro-establishment camp has become part of the Hong Kong political scene.  So presumably, their loss is for Wang to share as well.

Early speculation

Everyone has been waiting for signals from Beijing since millions took to the streets last June.  They came out to protest Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s insistence on forcing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to pass an extradition bill.  This would have allowed the transfer back to the mainland of fugitive suspects here, for crimes allegedly committed there.

Unprecedented in size, scope, and duration, the upsurge of local anger has continued ever since.  It has also evolved into a much larger protest movement. The target is Beijing’s growing intrusions into what was supposed to remain Hong Kong’s own autonomous space, or at least what everyone had been led to believe Beijing meant before 1997, when it promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy.”

Carrie Lam. Photo: Stand News.

The unrest seemed likely to produce an active response from Beijing.  Troop movements associated with the Chinese garrison stationed here and manoeuvres nearby on the other side of the border initially fueled speculation about a military crackdown. Memories of Beijing’s violent response to its own pro-democracy uprising, in 1989, are renewed here every year with a candlelight vigil on the evening of June Fourth.

But according to comments made by Carrie Lam, Beijing leaders understood that a 1989-style crackdown was now too heavy a price to pay.  She said they were willing to ride out the storm, according to a leaked record of remarks she made to a group of businesspeople in late August.  

The initial fears were replaced by others about drastic political interventions or policy changes, including the summary dismissal of Lam herself, although this last was more wishful thinking than apprehension.  Her wooden unresponsive leadership as much as the extradition bill itself had provoked the sudden upsurge of public anger.

Yet nothing happened except for periodic press conferences and statements reiterating Beijing faith in its “one-country, two-systems” Hong Kong formula and the people currently responsible for implementing it –  plus, the omnipresent need to end the protests.

An important Communist Party meeting was convened in late October.  Journalists sat by their communications devices in anxious anticipation.  But for Hong Kong, the Party Plenum conveyed only more of the same: a familiar message about perfecting Hong Kong’s governing formulas and systems.

These included the central government’s right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a point of great contention and resentment here.  Hong Kong was also enjoined to strengthen its political security arrangements and the mechanisms for enforcing them.

The Great Hall. File Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

Something must be going on behind the scenes, but what? Surely, Beijing officials would not just sit idly by and watch while their Hong Kong experiment in “one-country, two-systems” indirect rule unravelled before their eyes.

Nor could it be a simple matter of faulty intelligence coming from the Hong Kong Liaison Office.   Reliable reports noted the existence of an observation post set up by the central government just across the border in Shenzhen. Officials travelled from Beijing, the better to monitor events as they unfolded here, beginning last summer and culminating in the November 24 District Councils election.

Portents of changes to come?

The New Year personnel shift at the Liaison Office is the first sign of change in Beijing’s management of its Hong Kong project since the anti-Beijing anti-government protests erupted last summer.

So, what might be expected of the new arrival?  What instructions might he have carried with him from Beijing and from supreme leader Xi Jinping?   Xi likes to hold up Macau as a model.  He journeyed to Macau last month, for the 20th anniversary of its 1999 transfer from Portuguese to Chinese rule and his speech was full of praise for Macau is what Hong Kong is not:  obedient, loyal, and protest-free.

Johnny Lau Yui-siu, a veteran observer of Beijing-Hong Kong relations from both sides of the political divide, seemed more hopeful than optimistic.  He speculated that a tactical change might be in store, or at least it should be.  He hoped to see a move away from the tough police tactics and high-pressure hardline official responses.

Another long-time China-watcher, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, disagreed. Since Luo Huining was nearing the end of his career, he could be just the person to enforce a hard-line, regardless of the consequences. Luo’s reputation was built on his success in tackling tough assignments, one more reason for Xi Jinping to see him as someone to promote the security system upgrade anticipated for Hong Kong by the October Plenum.

Xi Jinping. Photo: i-Cable screenshot.

Luo spent the better part of his career – over a decade between 2003 and 2016 – in far western Qinghai, China’s most underdeveloped province.  It shares borders with Tibet and Xinjiang, where ethnic minority tensions are a fact of life.  He rose during that time to become governor and party secretary.

From there he was transferred in 2016 to Shanxi, a province then rife with corruption and an inefficient coal-based economy.   He reportedly tackled both problems, with an anti-corruption drive and plans for economic restructuring that demonstrated both determination and political skill, perhaps best wielded as a provincial outsider.

Lau Siu-kai initially professed shock at the sudden changing of the Liaison Office guard.  Wang Zhimin had denied rumours of his impending departure just a month before.  But then, upon reflection, Lau decided the change made sense since Luo brought with him a reputation for solving difficult political problems.  Lau is a long-time advisor to both pre- and post-1997 Hong Kong governments, and now a semi-official pro-Beijing spokesman.

Anonymous mainland “sources” told the South China Morning Post that Luo’s appointment could be a good thing – a clean slate, fresh pair of eyes contemplating the local scene, unencumbered by past ties built up within the Hong Kong-Macau bureaucratic hierarchy.

A ranking member of Hong Kong’s old pro-Beijing loyalist community said the same thing. Tam Yiu-chung is Hong Kong’s current representative on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing.  He is also a past leader of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), which has dominated Hong Kong’s labour scene since the 1950s.  Tam said Luo Huining could bring new ideas to the search for a way out of Hong Kong’s current predicament.

Troubleshooter, enforcer or miracle worker

Tam Yiu-chung’s age and station allow him to respond more freely than many other Bejing loyalists.  He spoke out after a recent spate of hardline media statements from Beijing about the urgent need for Hong Kong to pass the long-delayed national security legislation, shelved in 2003 after Hong Kong’s first mass upsurge against Beijing’s impositions.

The legislation is constantly championed as the proper means of checking the current protest movement and its “foreign force” backers who are held to be the real cause of Hong Kong’s rebellious spirit.

Tam Yiu-chung. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Tam’s advice: not so fast and not so urgent.  He warned that it would probably take some time, maybe a few years, before Hong Kong’s protest atmosphere recedes enough to try and push through that legislation without provoking more turmoil.  He will be among those Luo must meet and consult.  But is Luo likely to listen?

The editors at Ming Pao Daily seem more concerned about this than anyone else – so much so that they avoided predictions.  Instead, they concentrated on reviewing the biographies not just of the men who had filled the post of Liaison Office director before Luo, but those who preceded him before 1997 as well.

After the 1949 victory of China’s communist revolution, the local branch of the New China News Agency (NCNA) became Beijing’s de facto representative here.  It also looked after the interests of what became known as the “patriotic” community – a forerunner of today’s pro-Beijing pro-establishment camp.

Reviewing the careers of all eight men who held the top post after Beijing’s decision to take back Hong Kong in 1997 was made known, only two had no foreign affairs or specialized Hong Kong experience.  One served before 1997, and now Luo Huining is the first afterwards.

The two nevertheless had one other thing in common:   previous responsibility for governing major Chinese provinces.  Xu Jiatun had served from 1977 to 1983 as governor and party secretary in Jiangsu province.  When he arrived here in the early 1980s, preparations were just moving into high gear for the transition from British to Chinese rule.

Xu’s task had been to deal with that new challenge. Now Luo is similarly tasked with the new reality of Hong Kong’s political resistance movement and the consequences of its election victory take-over of the 18 district-level councils.  The councils had been dominated by the pro-Beijing pro-establishment camp for over a decade.

Xu Jiatun. File Photo: Apple Daily.

The editors reviewed Luo’s record as an outsider in Shanxi, confronting the dual challenge of corruption and economic decline.  Consequently, he might be someone with the courage and political skills necessary for the unfamiliar Hong Kong assignment.  But they were not sure.  So they followed up with a second editorial telling him what he should do.

The Liaison Office could be an important connector between Hong Kong and Beijing.  As a newcomer here and now, just as he had been in Shanxi only a few years ago, Luo is not encumbered by ties to local interests and local ways of doing things. But an accurate understanding of local views would be essential – all views.  He must not confine himself to the existing interests and concerns of the pro-Beijing pro-establishment camp as the Liaison Office has been wont to do.

He must also understand that methods used on the other side of the border do not necessarily work here.  Especially, Beijing and the Liaison Office must learn to talk to all kinds of people and listen to all kinds of voices, not just those of their local friends and allies.

The editors were nevertheless careful and diplomatic.  So, they neglected to mention how Xu Jiatun’s Hong Kong sojourn ended.  He was well-received when he arrived in the early 1980s.  Everyone including Xu himself seemed slightly bemused by the figure of a strait-laced mainland cadre trying to adapt to the ways and styles of the Western world.

He was constantly out and about, meeting and greeting all sorts of people.  But as arguments grew over the terms of Hong Kong’s transfer, he played the stern enforcer role as well, until 1989.

Hong Kong’s patriotic community was as mobilised by the occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square as everyone else, and as traumatized by the military crackdown.   It was a time not unlike now with what were then unprecedented marches and protest demonstrations.  Hong Kong’s current pro-democracy camp grew out of the 1989 upheaval.

Tiananmen Massacre Vigil, Victoria Park 2019. Photo: InMedia.

Contemplating Hong Kong’s coming return to China, Hongkongers saw an identity of interests with the protesters of Tiananmen Square that they hoped would lead to a new era of Chinese political reform for all.  That hope is now only a memory, but it is still being invoked every year during the June Fourth candlelight vigils commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square.

After Deng Xiaoping ordered the army to clear the square and the political crackdown began, there was a great reordering of local Hong Kong personnel in Chinese mainland-run media outlets and enterprises.  Johnny Lau’s resume as a ranking member of the Wen Wei Po newspaper staff ends abruptly in 1989.

Xu Jiatun had expressed sympathy with the Tiananmen protesters and was recalled.  But instead of returning to face whatever awaited him in Beijing, Xu took flight in another direction. He sought asylum in the United States and ended his days in exile as a resident of Orange County, California.

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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.