Luo Huining, new Liaison Office chief. Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong is busy trying to figure out what to make of a newly – and suddenly – appointed head of the Chinese central government’s Liaison Office.

Luo Huining provided few clues in his maiden speech Monday, mouthing platitudes that in some cases came directly from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Year’s speech a few days earlier.

However, the city’s chattering classes have been hard at work since it was announced Saturday that Luo would replace Wang Zhimin. By now there are plenty of informed takes on who Luo is, and what his mandate is.

A quick summary: Luo is a crisis management specialist who was recommended by a “trusted subordinate” of the president’s –perhaps as big a shot as Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan. And both Luo’s power within the mainland apparatus and his ability to carry out Beijing’s policies without constraints may turn out to be greater than those of his predecessor.

In his speech Monday Luo said that he hoped that protest-wracked Hong Kong would return to normal as soon as possible. “The situation in Hong Kong has made people agonize over the past half year,” the former party chief in Qinghai and Shanxi said in the lobby on the ground floor of the Liaison Office building in San Wan. “Everyone earnestly expects the international hub to go back to a right path.”

“Without a harmonized and a stable environment, how could there be a home that allows people to live and work in peace? I sincerely wish the best for Hong Kong and its citizens,” Luo said, citing new year remarks made by Xi five days earlier.

The “one country, two systems” principle is the biggest advantage of Hong Kong, Luo said, adding that Hong Kong has contributed to China’s opening and reform in the past while China would always provide the biggest backing for Hong Kong.

Luo said he was not a stranger to Hong Kong. He said he had confidence that Hong Kong would be able to fully implement China’s constitution and the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” principle and achieve long-term stability and prosperity in joint efforts with the Liaison Office, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong government and different communities.

Luo flattered Hong Kong reporters, praising the working spirit they’d shown by standing in front of the Liaison Office building for the whole morning waiting for him to speak. However, he did not answer media questions after giving his four-minute speech.

Portents

Luo’s appointment was announced on Saturday evening, 41 days after Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp faced a huge setback in the District Council election on November 24. In the election, the pro-democracy camp won 385 seats, or 85% of all the 452 seats, and 17 chairman positions in 18 district councils. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), a pro-Beijing political party, saw its number of seats drop to 21 from 120.

Beijing was considering replacing Wang Zhimin, Luo’s predecessor, Reuters reported on November 26, citing two unnamed sources. Wang and his office were being criticized for having mingled with the rich people and mainland elites in Hong Kong and isolating themselves from the local people, according to the report.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ office in Hong Kong called the report “false” and said it had lodged serious representations to Reuters and urged it to stop spreading rumors.

On December 3 in Beijing, Wang Zhimin told Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, two pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspapers, that he and all staff in the Liaison Office would continue to implement the central government’s Hong Kong policy based on the “three determinations and three supports” direction raised by Xi in a speech in Brazil. He said he would not let Xi down.

“Three determinations” referred to Beijing’s policies to safeguard China’s sovereignty and national security, implement the “one country two systems” principle and oppose the intervention of foreign powers in Hong Kong matters. “Three supports” referred to Beijing’s support of the Hong Kong’s government and its police and judiciary departments.

Not on the list

Meanwhile, Luo, who turned 65 last October, stepped down from his position as the party chief of Shanxi province at the end of November. He was praised by Beijing for stabilizing the economy of Shanxi, which had suffered from corruption scandals before 2016. On December 28, Luo was appointed deputy chairman of the National People’s Congress’s Finance and Economic Committee.

The retired Luo was originally not on the list for Xi’s consideration for the Hong Kong job, but he was recommended to Xi by a trusted subordinate of the Chinese President at the last minute, Deng Yuwen, a former editor of the Study Times and a visiting scholar at the Institute of China Policy at the University of Nottingham, told Sing Tao Daily.

A commentary published by the pro-democracy Next Magazine on Sunday said Luo, who has a doctoral degree in economics, was recommended to Xi by China’s Vice President Wang Qishan.

In 2016, Huang Xiaowei, the then anti-graft chief in Shanxi province, had been promoted by Wang Qishan as the deputy party chief in the same province to assist Luo. Both Luo and Huang were later praised by Wang, who was the secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection between 2012 and 2017.

Political commentator Yau Ching-yuen said Luo’s appointment was made after Xi made his new year speech with a friendly tone directed to Hong Kong. Yau said if Beijing had planned earlier to appoint Luo as new Liaison Office chief, it would not have granted him a basically powerless position in NPC on December 28.

Yau added that although Luo only has two and a half years in his political life, Hong Kong people should not underestimate him as he is new to Hong Kong and will not be bound by any constraints when implementing Beijing’s policies.

Johnny Lau Yui-siu, another political analyst, said Luo would help improve Hong Kong’s economy and people’s livelihood, resolve social conflicts and promote the economic integration of Hong Kong and the mainland. Lau said Luo’s appointment could mean a slight easing, but not a directional change, in Beijing’s tightening Hong Kong policies.

Ip Kwok-him, an Executive Council member in Hong Kong and a founding DAB member, said Luo is a crisis-management expert and should be able to find a way out for Hong Kong, which has suffered from social unrest for almost seven months. He said most people in the pro-establishment camp were not familiar with Luo but communications should not be a problem.

Wu Qiang, a former lecturer in the Department of Political Science of Tsinghua University, said the central government may adopt the mainland’s dual leadership system in Hong Kong so that the Liaison Office chief would be the “party chief of the special administrative region” while the chief executive would be more like a mayor. Wu said that if that should happen, the role of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Hong Kong would become less important.

Read: Lam apologizes to pro-establishment councillors

Read: HK Chief Executive ‘can be picked by consultation’

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