Beijing’s new man in Hong Kong Luo Huining: Is he the one?

Putting a political veteran in charge of the central government’s representative office in Hong Kong heralds a new approach in China’s dealings with Hong Kong.
Luo Huining, newly appointed director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, speaks to media to mark his first day at office in Hong Kong on 6 January 2020. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
Luo Huining, newly appointed director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, speaks to media to mark his first day at office in Hong Kong on 6 January 2020. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

It is unsurprising that a different man now chairs the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (LOCPG). What is surprising is that the man in the hot seat is now 65-year-old veteran politician Luo Huining.

China’s ministerial-level officials reach retirement age when they turn 65. Soon after his 65th birthday in November 2019, Luo stepped down from his position as party secretary of Shanxi province. In December 2019, Luo assumed the role of deputy director of the Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, a position usually reserved for retired top-level provincial ministers. Luo was slated to fully retire after the 14th National People’s Congress elections in 2023.

Luo Huining, former party secretary of Qinghai and Shanxi, now chairs the Hong Kong Liaison Office. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
Luo Huining, former party secretary of Qinghai and Shanxi, now chairs the Hong Kong Liaison Office. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

Ministerial-level officials who have reached retirement age typically take a back seat in politics. Yet, not only did Luo’s new assignment break this tradition, he became the first government official who was a former top-level provincial official to chair the LOCPG since the handover of Hong Kong.

Provincial party secretaries are openly recognised as one of the most important positions among all of China’s ministerial-level positions. Armed with experience in dealing with complex political, economic, and social stability issues, top officials who are entrusted with the role have all weathered tough challenges and proved their mettle.

The fact that Luo was the former party secretary of two provinces — Qinghai and Shanxi — shows that the supreme leaders have a lot of trust in him. Without a doubt, his capabilities and dynamism are also fully recognised by the leaders who specially appointed him to take over the controversial LOCPG just as he was due to retire.

Officially speaking, the LOCPG is regarded as a ministerial-level organisation. Its main roles lie in liaising with the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison; contacting and assisting relevant mainland China departments in managing Chinese funded organisations; promoting economic, educational, scientific, cultural, and sporting exchanges and collaboration between the mainland and Hong Kong; keeping in touch with Hong Kongers from all walks of life; forging deeper ties between the mainland and Hong Kong; reporting the views of Hong Kongers towards the mainland; handling Taiwan-related affairs; and undertaking other tasks assigned by the central government.

In actual fact, the LOCPG is the central government’s representative office in Hong Kong. The impression that the Hong Kongers have of the central government and the mainland is directly related to the LOCPG’s work. Hong Kong’s violent protests have become part and parcel of daily life since June 2019. Although many reasons account for this outbreak of violence — some of which are beyond the control of the LOCPG, and even the central government — it is clear something went terribly wrong in the LOCPG’s work. It is also an indisputable fact that the LOCPG failed to communicate effectively with the Hong Kongers, especially the young people.

The impression that the Hong Kongers have of the central government and the mainland is directly related to the LOCPG’s work. In the photo, a lawmaker in a mask depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping protests as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attempts to deliver her annual policy address at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on October 16, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
The impression that the Hong Kongers have of the central government and the mainland is directly related to the LOCPG’s work. In the photo, a lawmaker in a mask depicting Chinese President Xi Jinping protests as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attempts to deliver her annual policy address at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on 16 October 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

For a long time, the LOCPG has been chaired by either former diplomats, or officials who’ve served for many years at the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. These officials are good at dealing with elites from Hong Kong’s business and political circles, often attending cocktail parties and high-profile events. They are disconnected with the general public’s life and thoughts, and do not have the time, or are unwilling to spare effort in labouring over the tough grassroots work. Inevitably, this will gradually widen the gap between the LOCPG and the Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation.

At the same time, the diplomats and officials who have worked at the affairs office lack experience in governing a locality, and are thus relatively weaker in breaking new grounds and dealing with complex matters. They’re used to maintaining the status quo, spending their time and effort writing up their reports. These inadequacies may be inconsequential on a normal day, but become very significant once these officials are hit by a huge challenge.

There seems to be no end to Hong Kong’s unrest at present. Simply put, the Chinese government is assigning a politician with a higher political status and has better abilities to tackle complex problems, to better exemplify the aforementioned roles of the LOCPG. It hopes to remove the Hong Kongers’ misunderstandings and opposition towards the central government and the mainland, so that violence and unrest can soon be eradicated.

There seems to be no end to Hong Kong’s unrest at present. Anti-government protesters are seen marching at an anti-parallel trading protest at Sheung Shui, a border town in Hong Kong on January 5, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
There seems to be no end to Hong Kong’s unrest at present. Anti-government protesters are seen marching at an anti-parallel trading protest at Sheung Shui, a border town in Hong Kong, on 5 January 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Luo was once a “sent down” youth, sent from the city to work in poor villages during China’s “Down to the Countryside Movement” in the 60s and 70s. He worked at a steel mill for seven years and enrolled in Anhui University’s Department of Economics in 1978. He served for a long time at Anhui province, and was secretary-general of the province during the time that Hui Liangyu — former member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and former vice premier of the People’s Republic of China — served as governor of Anhui province.

In 1999, Luo became a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Anhui Provincial Committee and the province’s propaganda chief. In 2010, Luo became governor of Qinghai. In 2013, he became party secretary of Qinghai province, before becoming party secretary of Shanxi province in 2016. Luo’s curriculum vitae boasts extensive experience in local governance.

Undoubtedly, the complexity of Hong Kong’s current predicament is no less than any other Chinese province. As the LOCPG’s new director, Luo, who has been in the political arena for over 30 years, will face challenges that he has never met before in his political career. Compared with his predecessor Wang Zhimin, Luo has a higher political status which could earn him greater authority. In time to come, the world will see if he can gain a strong foothold amidst the mess, and break new ground in the work of the LOCPG.