Beijing: China has replaced its top envoy to Hong Kong, state media reported on Saturday, the most significant personnel change by Beijing since pro-democracy protests erupted in the city nearly seven months ago.
The removal of the head of the Liaison Office, which represents the central government in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, comes as the city grapples with its biggest political crisis in decades.
“Wang Zhimin has been dismissed from his position as head of the Liaison Office” and replaced by Luo Huining, state broadcaster CCTV said, without giving details about the shuffle.
Millions have come out on the streets since June last year in a wave of protests sparked by opposition to a now-abandoned proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China.
But they soon morphed into a larger demand for greater democratic freedoms in the starkest challenge to Beijing since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The demonstrations have often descended into violent clashes between hardcore protesters and the police, and Wang had condemned them as “rioters” that needed to be brought to justice.
The Liaison Office, whose director is the highest-ranking Chinese political official in Hong Kong, was targeted in July by protesters throwing eggs and graffitiing the building.
Hong Kong is ruled under the “one country, two systems” principle, which gives the territory rights unseen on mainland China — but demonstrators say these are being steadily eroded by an increasingly assertive central government in Beijing.
Protesters are demanding fully free elections to elect the city’s leadership, amnesty for the thousands arrested during the protests, and an inquiry into the conduct of the police.
While the extradition bill that started the protests was eventually withdrawn, the Chinese government and the Hong Kong administration have since refused further concessions.
China has denied allegations that it is clamping down on the city’s freedoms, has dismissed the movement’s political grievances and painted it as a foreign-backed plot.
It has also continued to back Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular leader Carrie Lam.
Wang was appointed to the director’s post in 2017, having previously served in a number of positions at the Liaison Office.
In early December, following media reports that Beijing was considering replacing him, Wang vowed to continue, saying he will offer unwavering support to the Hong Kong government and police force in a bid to end the crisis.