Beijing’s new man in Hong Kong: how the ‘odd choice’ of Luo Huining could signal a change in thinking
- The former provincial party chief has had little experience dealing with Hong Kong, but a fresh mindset could be just what the central government wanted
- His appointment also signals Xi Jinping’s thinking in terms of promoting officials based on their records, rather than on age or term limits
First, let’s focus on Luo’s seemingly improbable elevation to one of China’s most high-profile – and difficult – jobs, less than a week before he was seemingly heading into semi-retirement.
As some analysts have pointed out, it is possible that Luo was chosen precisely because of his lack of Hong Kong experience and connections, as Beijing intended to have him bring a fresh mindset to the city – once described by a senior Chinese official as a deep book which was very difficult to understand.
In fact, ever since the protests turned violent in June, there have been calls within China’s official circles for the leadership to change its approach and appoint a hardened provincial party chief or seasoned cabinet minister – incumbent or retired – to take the lead in managing the Hong Kong issue.
The argument was that the long-favoured practice of appointing officials with impressive resumes from Beijing or Guangdong, who boast ample knowledge of Hong Kong and related international issues, had outlived its usefulness, seeing as it was just this thinking and approach that had helped land the city in the mess it is in currently.
It may be easy for outsiders to dismiss provincial party chiefs like Luo as hacks, but those who occupy such positions are the highest-ranking officials in the provinces they oversee and are in charge of every major development, economic or social. As Shanxi party chief, Luo led a province of 37 million people – much bigger than Greece in terms of population and land area – and was commended for cracking down hard on corruption and trying to diversify the economy away from coal, a traditional mainstay.
However, such thinking is increasingly moot at a time when Xi’s unchallenged authority means that it hardly matters which faction a particular official originates from – a precondition of career advancement is loyalty to Xi.
But counting on Luo alone to recalibrate Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong may be over-optimistic. He reports directly to the party’s leading group on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, a mysterious group comprising officials from various party organisations and government ministries whose composition remains as yet unchanged.
While Luo’s immediate job is to work with the Hong Kong government to end the protests, his stated goal of helping to bring the city back to normal will not be easy, given the structural shifts in relations that have occurred between Beijing and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp.
His appointment also sends an important signal of Xi’s thinking in terms of promoting officials based more on their proven records of capability than on age and term limits.
Since the 1980s, the central government has enforced a strict policy of requiring senior party and government officials to retire at 60 if they hold the rank of deputy provincial governor or deputy government minister, and at 65 if they are a provincial party chief or minister.
The most notable exception to that rule was Zhou Xiaochuan – the governor of China’s central bank for three consecutive terms from December 2002 to March 2018, who was reappointed for his third term in the ministerial-level role in 2013 when he was already 65.
For Xi, who engineered constitutional changes to remove the term limits on his presidency, retaining capable officials is critical.
Following this line of thinking, Luo’s appointment has raised hopes that Beijing could make use of other retired officials with proven records of capability. Several names spring to mind, including Chen Deming, former trade minister, who turns 71 in March, and Lou Jiwei, a former finance minister, who turns 70 in December.
To put this in context, Robert Lighthizer, the tough US Trade Representative, turns 73 this year and Wilbur Ross, the US Secretary of Commerce, will be 83. ■
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper