The recent personnel reshuffle and upgrade of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council is expected to allow the Chinese President to have better scrutiny on the two SARs.
As the nation is battling against the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Beijing has unexpectedly reshuffled the key personnels and structure of its cabinet-level office overseeing the matters in Macau and Hong Kong.
This surprise move, including the installment of one of the proteges of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is expected to give better control to Mr. Xi over the two special administrative regions with less reporting-ling and bureaucratic problems, political observers say.
The Chinese State Council announced in February that Xia Baolong, the secretary general and vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the nation’s top political advisory body, would be the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council. The incumbent Chief Zhang Xiaoming would be demoted to the position as the executive deputy director of the office running the daily operations, the statement read.
It is the first time since the handover of the two special administrative regions in 1997 and 1999 respectively that a current state leader is placed to head the HKMAO. All the previous directors of the HKMAO, since the handover, were only officials at the ministerial level, except Liao Hui, who spearheaded the office between 1997 and 2010. Mr. Liao was only a ministerial-ranked official when he assumed the position and got promoted to the state-leader level in the later stage of his tenure at HKMAO.
Lau Siu Kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said it is an overhaul by Beijing in the working system, concerning the affairs of Macau and Hong Kong. “This arrangement allows an official with more political power to head the HKMAO,” said the vice-president of the semi-official think tank.
“With both the directors of the liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau becoming the deputy directors of HKMAO, this represents an upgrade ofthe functions of HKMAO, and also shows that the central government has attached greater importance to the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau,” MrLau noted.
The same February announcement by the State Council also noted LuoHuining and Fu Ziying, directors of the Chinese liaison offices in Hong Kong and Macau respectively, would also assume the positions of deputy directors of HKMAO, the first time for the chiefs of the liaison offices to take up these roles.
HKMAO now has a state leader, Mr. Xia, and three ministerial-ranked officials, Messrs Zhang, Luo, and Fu (a heavily loaded personnel arrangement that is only replicated in another unit of the State Council, the National Development and Reform Commission, which is also known as the “mini State Council”)
While the shake-up represents an upgrade of HKMAO, pundits also see this move as helping to resolve the overlapping functions of the unit and the liaison offices in the two cities by putting the former a level above the latter. Prior to the reshuffle, both HKMAO and the liaison offices were headed by officials at the ministerial level, sometimes creating confusion concerning the reporting line, they say.
After the overhaul, the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs (headed by Han Zheng, vice premier of the Chinese State Council, with heads of HKMAO and the liaison offices as the group’s members) is regarded as the top organ in supervising and coordinating Beijing’s policy towards the administrative regions. HKMAO is seen as the execution and supporting unit of the coordination group, followed by the liaison offices.
Hong Kong-based political commentator, Bruce Lui, also pointed out the different resume of Mr. Xia. “Unlike the previous directors of HKMAO, Xia does not have any experience in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau before, but he has worked in key positions in different [Chinese] provinces,” he said.
Born in Tianjin, Mr. Xia had been the Vice Mayor of Tianjin before assuming the position of deputy party secretary of Zhejiang province in 2003, directly serving under Xi Jinping (the party secretary of the eastern province) between 2003 and 2007.
After the departure of Mr. Xi from the party secretary of Zhejiang, Mr. Xia had gradually become the governor and the party cadre of the province. It is believed that the two forged a close working relationship during thosefew years in Zhejiang, making Mr. Xia as one of the proteges of the Chinese President.
Acknowledging the new director is a trusted ally of Mr. Xi, Mr. Luiremarked, “The policy and works from the HKMAO to the liaison offices will be more aligned with the roadmap laid down by Beijing now [than the past].”
The political analyst also pointed out the timing of the appointment, when the nation has been attempting to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 (believed to have originated from the Chinese central city of Wuhan, Hubei province) since December. Beijing announced on the same day the shake-up of HKMAO, alongside with the reshuffle of officials in Hubei province, they have been highly criticised for their responses to the public health alert.
“It shows that the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau is another major issue Beijing aims to tackle besides the coronavirus at the moment,” Mr. Luisaid.
No major changes
The appointment also comes amid months of protests in Hong Kong since last June against a now-shelved extradition bill, which have gradually morphed into demonstrations for more autonomy and democracy in the Asian financial centre. The handling of the matters by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor and the officials from HKMAO and liaison office have been lambasted by some quarters in the society.
Thus, the demotion of Zhang Xiaoming as the executive deputy director of HKMAO, and the recent replacement of the director of the liaison office in Hong Kong in January (when Luo Huining took over Wang Zhimi) were regarded as retribution by Beijing.
A Macau political source believes the recent changes at HKMAO is more concerning for Hong Kong than for the gambling enclave. “The central government definitely tries to place officials with a fresher perspective and insights, given the fact that there are still no signs of major changes in the morale in the [Hong Kong] community since the beginning of the anti-government protests,” the source said. “The previous chiefs [of HKMAO] were only limited to the Hong Kong-Macau system.”
“As [Macau] Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng said, the society knows the city can’t descend into chaos like Hong Kong, as well as the hailing of the city as a model of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ by the Chinese President. The shake-up in HKMAO does not mean any significant changes in Beijing’s policy towards Macau,” the insider said.
Mr. Ho (who had been the president of the Legislative Assembly and thecity’s sole deputy in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament, for years) has assumed the position as the city’s top job since late December. Upon the appointment of Mr. Xia, Mr. Ho released a congratulatory statement, remarking, “Under the unswerving leadership of the central government, we will continue to strengthen communications and forge close cooperation with the HKMAO to implement the principles of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ comprehensively and accurately.”
“[We] will work together to facilitate the success of the Macau-style ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” the statement read.
Macau-based political commentator, Larry So Man Yum, thinks the new HKMAO director should focus more on the economic aspects of the two cities rather than the political aspect, as both Macau and Hong Kong are now reeling from the economic pains of the coronavirus.
The city’s casinos have been shut down for 15 days, while the visitation to the gambling enclave has also plunged over 90 percent, amid the efforts across the territory and the nation to fight against COVID-19. Some analysts have pinpointed, it might take months before the recovery of the Macau economy.
“The most important thing at the moment is to ensure that all the investments remain in place and the confidence of residents are restored,” Mr. So said, adding placing greater emphasis to the economic development is in line with Beijing’s thoughts towards the two cities.
Member of “Iron Army”
While the new director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council has close links to Chinese President XiJinping, Xia Baolong is also notoriously known for ripping crosses from the churches.
Before his new position in the Hong Kong-Macau system, Mr. Xia (who had also served as vice major of Tianjin in the past) has spent most of his career in Zhejiang province. Once an immediate subordinate to Mr. Xi, who was the provincial party chief of Zhejiang between late 2003 and 2007, Mr. Xia, who also served as the party top cadre in the eastern province between 2012 and 2017, did not hold back his praise towards his boss.
In a farewell message made in 2017, Mr. Xia said, “Every step of progress and development in Zhejiang could only be achieved with the guidance and care of [Mr. Xi], as well as his hard work in Zhejiang dating back to years ago.”
“I have to speak from the bottom of my heart that it is the great fortune of the Chinese, the nation, the party and the people to have Xi Jinping as the core of the [Community Party of China],” he said at the time.
He also noted it was his great honour to become a member of “Iron Army in Zhejiang”, a term he coined to refer to the officials who had worked with the Chinese President in Zhejiang, also known as the “New Zhejiang Army”.
Spending 14 years in the eastern province, Mr. Xia has helped contribute to the economic rise of Zhejiang, as well as organising the 2016 Group of 20summit in Hangzhou, the capital city of the province.
But he was best known internationally for leading a campaign between 2013 and 2015, which has seen over 2,000 churches in Zhejiang descend into destruction, such as the toppling of crosses on the roofs.
The campaign was reportedly to be initiated by the remarks of Mr. Xi during his visit to Wenzhou, a city of Zhejiang, in 2013 questioning the prevalence of church buildings in the city.