China has demoted the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the State Council said Thursday, following months of pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous city.

The shuffling of officials at China’s top policy body on the financial hub’s affairs comes after months of political unrest — the starkest challenge to Beijing since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Zhang Xiaoming. File photo: In-Media.

Senior Beijing official Xia Baolong, currently secretary-general at the national committee of China’s top political advisory body, was promoted to director while Zhang Xiaoming was re-appointed as a deputy in charge of daily operations at the office.

In Hong Kong, millions have taken to the streets since June last year, originally in opposition to a now-abandoned proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China.

The movement then morphed into demands for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

In recent days, Hong Kong’s leaders have faced criticism as well over shortages of masks and resources that emerged in their handling of a virus epidemic starting from the mainland.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said 67-year-old Xia served as deputy to President Xi Jinping when was party secretary of Zhejiang province.

“I think Xi Jinping wanted to find someone he could trust,” said Cabestan.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Director Zhang Xiaoming. Photo: GovHK.

Cabestan said Xia, a former Zhejiang Communist Party chief, has since been known for a hardline approach in fighting the re-emergence of Christianity there.

The personnel changes are aimed at boosting coordination between Beijing and Hong Kong, he said, as well as giving more support to the pro-establishment camp in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

“(Xi) wants fresh blood, people he can trust, who are going to bring Hong Kong closer to China,” he said.

The State Council added that Luo Huining, head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and Fu Ziying, who heads the Macau liaison office, will also be given the roles of deputy director while still keeping their existing positions.

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