Beijing’s Appointment of Xia Baolong Signals a Harder Line on Hong Kong

Xia Baolong, the Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), speaks at a provincial CPPCC conference in Inner Mongolia, May 2018. Xia was given a concurrent appointment on February 13 as Director of the PRC State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. The appointment of Xia, who is known both as an ally of Xi Jinping and as a hardliner on issues of CCP social control, signals that Beijing intends to implement a tougher line on Hong Kong. (Image source: CPPCC)

Introduction

Beijing has signaled a much tougher policy toward the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) with the announcement on February 13 that Xia Baolong (夏宝龙), the Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), would take up a concurrent appointment as Director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). In the official pecking order of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a CPPCC vice-chairman is reckoned as a “state leader”—and therefore, this move portends the raising of the status of the HKMAO and the overall importance of Hong Kong affairs in national policy. Also significant is the fact that from 2002 to 2007, when Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping was party secretary of the coastal Zhejiang Province, Xia was deputy party secretary. The fact that Xia, who began his career in the Tianjian municipality, is an important Xi protégé is well-known among China analysts (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], February 14; HK01.com, February 13).

The HKMAO is usually headed by a ministerial-level official. Zhang Xiaoming (张晓明), a veteran of the HKMAO whom Xia replaced, is a ministerial-level cadre. After being demoted, Zhang remains the Executive Vice-Director of the HKMAO with the title of minister. However, it seems clear that his job will be to execute policies as directed by Xia—and above Xia, Xi Jinping. With the appointment of a key associate as head of the HKMAO, Xi also indirectly takes over the position of the highest arbiter of Hong Kong and Macau affairs. This is despite the fact that according to division of labor, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member in charge of Hong Kong—the Head of the Central Coordination Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs (CCGHKMA)—is PBSC member and Vice-Premier Han Zheng (韩正). In the past few years, Han has focused on infrastructure programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area Project, leaving Hong Kong-related political issues to Xi as the “lifelong core” of the party (BBC Chinese Service, February 13; ITN.com [Taipei], December 3, 2019; PRC State Council, March 1, 2019).

Xia Baolong’s Tenure in Zhejiang Province—and What It Portends for the Future

Given the long Chinese tradition of the rule of men, instead of the rule of law, it is important to understand the traits and policy orientation of Xia (born 1952). After steadily rising through the ranks in Tianjin from 1970 to 2003, Xia was appointed CCP Deputy Secretary of Zhejiang from 2003 to 2007. During this time, he doubled as a member of the Zhejiang Standing Committee for Political-Legal Affairs. It was his orthodox stance on CCP social control, and his intolerance of dissident voices and the growth of civil society, which endeared Xia to Xi. Xia was made Governor of Zhejiang in 2012, and Party Secretary one year later.

In his first months upon arrival in Zhejiang, Xia visited various Zhejiang cities such as prosperous Wenzhou, which has a sizeable Christian community. Xia reportedly told his subordinates that he wondered whether the church or the CCP was running the show in swathes of Zhejiang. Then in 2014, Xia opened the first salvo in a nationwide crackdown on underground Protestant and Catholic churches by forcibly destroying the crosses on church buildings—and sometimes the whole churches themselves—in different Zhejiang cities. Xia’s goal is to “Sinicize” Christianity, or to inject Confucian and other Chinese values into the Western creed, through the arbitrary change of Church dogma (RTHK.hk, February 13; Christianitytoday.com, March 20, 2019; Chinaaid.net, October 16, 2017; Zhejiang News, June 26, 2015).

While Xia seemed to enjoy Xi’s full support, Xi also seemed—if only for a brief period—to realize the international image problems produced by this harshest prosecution of religion in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. At a Central Meeting on National Religious Affairs held in Beijing in 2016, provinces such as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Hebei were cited for their effective religious work; Zhejiang, however, was strangely missing. Despite speculation that Xia would gain a Politburo-level slot at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he was instead given the prestigious pre-retirement job at the CPPCC. At the same time, Li Qiang (李强), Governor of Zhejiang and another Xi protégé, was promoted Party Secretary of Shanghai; he also won a seat on the ruling Politburo (Huanqiu Shibao, May 5, 2017; Xinhua, April 23, 2016).

According to Ying Fuk-tsang, Dean of the Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Xi Jinping might have thought for several months that Xia had gone overboard in suppression of the Christian church—but Xia never lost Xi’s trust. In 2018, the destruction of churches and crosses resumed in Henan Province and other jurisdictions. “Xi has a high estimation of the fact that Xia takes the party’s interests first and that he is a ruthless enforcer,” Ying said. “That is why Xia has been brought back to the frontline now that cracking down on ‘anti-China’ forces has become top priority in Beijing’s policy toward the SAR.” [1]

Wang Yang (second from right), Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), meets with CPPCC members from Hong Kong in October 2018. Xia Baolong (center, background) stands just behind Wang Yang. Xia’s role in managing Beijing’s policies towards Hong Kong has now significantly expanded with his appointment as Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. (Image source: Xinhua)

Changes in Beijing’s Policy Apparatus for Hong Kong

Xia’s appointment is not an isolated event: the entire structure of Beijing’s Hong Kong policy establishment has been changed. Luo Huining (骆惠宁), the newly appointed Director of the Hong Kong-based Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong SAR (HKCLO)—which serves as Beijing’s mission in the SAR––was made concurrently a Vice-Director of the HKMAO. (Fu Ziying, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Macao Special Administrative Region, was also concurrently appointed as a deputy director of the HKMAO.) Prior to this development, the ministerial-level posts of the heads of the HKMAO and the HKCLO were held by different cadres and they did not report to each other. Now Luo, a former party secretary of Qinghai and Shanxi (who, like Xia himself, was given a pre-retirement job at the National People’s Congress just late last year), has to report to Xia—and through Xia, to supreme leader Xi (DWnews.com, February 15; Caixin.com, February 13).

Luo is not known as a member of the Xi Jinping faction, but he is considered acceptable to Xi as a compromise candidate for the Hong Kong post. Luo served in top positions in the Qinghai Autonomous Region from 2003 to 2016, prior to his appointment as party boss of the larger province of Shanxi. Given that the remote northwestern region of Qinghai has a sizeable minority of Tibetans, Luo, like Xia, has ample experience implementing harsh policies in regions with restive populations. Luo is also much more senior in experience than his predecessor Wang Zhimin; and Wang, like Zhang Xiaoming, served a significant portion of his career in the Hong Kong and Macau policy establishments (BBC Chinese Service, January 6; South China Morning Post, January 4).

Conclusion: What Xia’s Appointment Means for Hong Kong

What will the new appointment of Xia portend for Beijing’s Hong Kong policy? Most politicians and commentators from the pro-democracy camp are worried that Xia will enforce tighter control—and further press the “one country two systems” framework—through streamlining of the Hong Kong policy establishment and appointing top protégés to head Hong Kong affairs. Wu Chi-Wai, the Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, has told local media that cadres such as Xia and Luo are “hardliners” faithful to Xi. “They will implement a policy that stresses that priority will be given to the national interest,” he said. “They will tightly implement Beijing’s control over Hong Kong policy” (Singtao Daily [Hong Kong], February 14).

Foremost on Xia’s agenda could be the promulgation of some form of national security legislation, such as the much-feared draft “Article 23” legislation—which would punish SAR residents found guilty of sedition, secession, leaking of state secrets, and other anti-Beijing activities (China Brief, November 19, 2019). The Fourth Plenum of the Communist Party in late 2019 emphasized that Hong Kong must “build up an effective legal system and execution mechanism for the SAR to safeguard national security” (建立健全特區維護國家安全的法律制度和執行機制, jianli jianquan tequ weihu guojia anquan de falu zhidu he zhixing jizhi). This point has been emphasized by senior cadres including Zhang Xiaoming and Luo Huining. Upon assuming office as Director of the HKCLO, Luo repeated this point verbatim, saying that without concrete measures to ensure the nation’s security and stability, both Hong Kong and the motherland risked being “infiltrated and damaged” by hostile foreign forces (News.now.com [Hong Kong], January 20; Radio French International, November 1, 2019).

Over the longer term, the CCP will likely work behind the scenes to see that more force is used to tackle the demonstrations that grew out of the anti-Extradition Bill movement in mid-2019 (China Brief, June 26, 2019). Beijing will also take steps to further promote “patriotic education,” and textbooks will be gradually changed to emphasize the glorious achievements of the PRC—as well as the duty of every SAR citizen to be loyal to the state, and to foil “plots” that threaten national security (China Brief, December 10, 2019). The CCP will also try to stifle the SAR’s civil society, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—particularly religious-oriented NGOs, and those originating from the U.S. and other Western countries—could be put under more scrutiny. Notably, Article 23 forbids Hong Kong’s political organizations from making some forms of association with counterparts in foreign countries (Christian Times [Hong Kong], February 14; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], January 2; Ming Pao, November 14, 2019).

Since Xia reports directly to Xi, the means and mechanisms that Beijing will adopt to materialize “comprehensive rule” in the Hong Kong SAR could become swifter and more efficacious than before. It is conceivable that in the long run, at least a modicum of the mentality behind Beijing’s treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans might be applied to the citizens of Hong Kong. After all, it was Xia’s suppression of underground Christians beginning in 2014 that set the tone for the internment camps in Xinjiang, whose goal is the “Sinicization” of the Uighur minorities. Xia’s comeback to power in a position of prominence is emblematic of Xi’s desire to tighten Beijing’s grip over politics, economics, and civil society in the Hong Kong SAR.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019.

Notes

[1] Author’s interview with Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, February 2020.