Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
Hong Kong marked the beginning of the decade with a huge anti-government march that organizers said was bigger than the million-person demonstration last June. The New Year’s Day protest began peacefully and ended in violence. The police said rioters hijacked the demonstration, leading them to order an early end to the protest.
By ordering the rally to end early, the police turned an authorized march into an unlawful gathering and arrested at least 400 people, most for illegal assembly.
Then, on the fourth day of the new year, China suddenly announced the replacement of its top official in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin. He is the first official to be removed since the outbreak of anti-government protests last June.
Mr. Wang, who has been involved in Hong Kong affairs for 15 years, was removed as director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong; his successor, Luo Huining, has had little experience in such matters. As party secretary of Shanxi province, he led a delegation in 2018 to discuss co-operation between the province and Hong Kong.
Mr. Wang’s departure wasn’t completely unexpected. Reuters reported in November, in the wake of an overwhelming democratic sweep in the district elections, that Beijing was considering possible successors for him. But the Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office denied the report and accused the news agency of being unprofessional and irresponsible.
There is a general sense that the Liaison Office bears some responsibility for the current crisis, at least in failing to provide Beijing with an accurate picture of the situation in Hong Kong. The office is suspected of reporting only what it thinks officials in Beijing want to hear.
The Liaison Office has a long history of misreporting the Hong Kong situation. A similar thing happened in 2003, when half a million people protested against a national security law that many saw as undermining rights and freedoms. The law was withdrawn and, in its aftermath, the Liaison Office falsely reported that protesters had been paid to demonstrate by Americans, a charge that is once again being spread during the current crisis.
Although the decision to replace Mr. Wang may have been made in November, the choice of his successor seems to have been a last-minute choice. Mr. Luo turned 65 in October, the usual retirement age, and on Dec. 28 (seven days before his appointment as director of the Liaison Office) he was named vice-chairman of the financial and economic affairs committee of the National People’s Congress, a position often held by retired officials.
What happened between Dec. 28 and Jan. 4? The New Year’s Day protest. That, preceded by the unexpected electoral upset in late November, may have shocked Beijing into immediate action.
Beijing likely realizes that the entire Hong Kong reporting network is tainted, and feels it is better to have an outsider come in who is not part of the old system.
Mr. Luo’s financial and economic expertise is likely to prove useful. Beijing may want him to help a faltering Hong Kong economy get back on target, no doubt through strengthening ties with the mainland.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a statement welcoming the newcomer to Hong Kong and said she expected the Liaison Office and her administration to continue working together.
This is an opportunity for Ms. Lam to take the initiative and make a serious attempt to resolve the political crisis that has beset her government for seven months. So far, she has made no effort to seek a compromise with protesters, simply saying that their demands, such as a commission of inquiry into police behaviour and an amnesty for protesters, are unacceptable.
The government can easily set up a commission of inquiry, which can be asked to look into both police and protester actions rather than only those of the police.
And forgiveness doesn’t have to be limited to one side. The police need not fear they will be victimized.
A commission of inquiry is needed to establish the truth of what happened so that there can be closure for the community as a whole. Ms. Lam can discuss ways of dealing with the crisis with the new Liaison Office director and take the protesters’ demands seriously. She can come forward with her own ideas.
The new year presents new opportunities, which should not be frittered away.