Li Fei, a long-time deputy to Hong Kong Basic Law Committee chairman Qiao Xiaoyang, was promoted yesterday to head the body, as the National People's Congress standing committee announced the latest personnel reshuffle.
Li, who has a legal background, is expected to take up a major role in the forthcoming debate on Hong Kong's political reform, which will set out the rules for the 2016 Legislative Council election and for the selection of the chief executive in 2017 by universal suffrage.
In the National People's Congress meeting this month, Qiao was appointed chairman of the Law Committee under the NPC standing committee, while Li becomes the committee's vice-chairman.
Qiao's appointment led to widespread speculation that he would step down from his role as chairman of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee. Li, a vice-chairman of the committee who also followed Hong Kong affairs over the years, had been hotly tipped to take the post.
Zhang Rongshun , a long-serving mainland official at the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was appointed to take up Li's role as the new vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee.
Over the past decade, Li has been a core member to convey the mainland's legal viewpoint in Hong Kong affairs. In 2010, he warned that the so-called de facto referendum exercise triggered by the resignations of five pan-democratic lawmakers was "fundamentally in breach of the Basic Law".
Elsie Leung Oi-sie, a vice-chairwoman of the committee, said she was delighted with Li's appointment.
"Li is very familiar with the legal issues of Hong Kong. We have been working for many years, so I know he has a good grasp of it," she said, adding that universal suffrage was for the time being not on the agenda of the committee.
Asked if she thought Li would adopt a tough style, Leung replied: "I don't know why you described him as tough. We just discuss legal issues, not policies."
Lau Nai-keung, a member of the committee, described Li as "a knowledgable person who is usually rather quiet … but when he talks, he talks very precisely".
Civil Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit said Qiao had shown understanding for the insistence on the rule of law in Hong Kong, and hoped that Li would show the same attitude.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would not say whether he would meet Li to discuss political reform. "When it is appropriate and needed, I shall meet central government officials and start working towards the universal suffrage of the chief executive poll in 2017," Leung said.