China named an official known for tearing crosses from the roofs of churches to lead the agency that oversees Hong Kong, in the biggest shakeup yet after months of unrest.
Xia Baolong, 67, the vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, will replace Zhang Xiaoming as director of the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office, the State Council said Thursday. Zhang will become a vice director, it said. Xia is a former close aide to President Xi Jinping and served as Communist Party chief of Zhejiang province during the crackdown on Christian churches.
Xia’s installation follows last month’s appointment of Luo Huining as head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. The choice of Luo, a Communist Party cadre known for executing Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, was seen as a signal of Beijing’s intention to restore order over Hong Kong after months of violent unrest opposing China’s grip on the city.
“The reshuffling at this interesting moment may point to a deep distrust from Xi Jinping toward the former faction dealing with Hong Kong affairs,” said Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong-based academic and political commentator.
“It’s clear that Xi Jinping wants to have a clear grasp of the situation in Hong Kong — that’s the major point,” Lo added. “We’ll probably see some adjustment in Chinese policy toward Hong Kong.”
The rare appointment of such a senior official potentially signals a permanent overhaul in how Beijing manages the former British colony. The Communist Party issued a communique late last year signaling greater intervention in everything from education in Hong Kong to how the city picks its leader.
Xia’s push in 2014 and 2015 to tear down crosses on the roofs of churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang was widely criticized by the international community. He was subsequently appointed to a leadership role on the CPPCC, the nation’s political advisory body and a post usually seen as a transition toward retirement for senior leaders.
Hong Kong’s government, having weathered months of mass protests, now faces deepening public distrust over its handling of the spread of a coronavirus outbreak centered on the mainland that’s led to runs on surgical masks and toilet paper and shuttered local schools through March. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been under pressure from some groups, including health care workers, to fully seal off the border with mainland China.
Though she stopped short of doing so, key checkpoints are largely closed, including the ferry terminal that links Hong Kong and Macau. The gaming hub, meanwhile, has been forced to temporarily close its casinos.
Xia’s appointment came as much of the world was focused on China’s replacement of top officials in virus-stricken Hubei. On Thursday, China also announced the replacement of Jiang Chaoliang, the party’s Hubei secretary, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
–With assistance from Li Liu and Dandan Li.