BEIJING -- China promoted Leung Chun-yin, the unpopular outgoing leader in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, to a key position of the nation's top political advisory body on Monday. This unprecedented move is triggering renewed debate on the erosion of the "one country, two systems" principle that was guaranteed to Hong Kong at the time of handover in 1997.
Leung was elected as vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the end of the annual meeting. He secured support from 2,066 representatives. Only 13 voted against him.
After Leung's promotion was confirmed, Chinese President Xi Jinping stopped for more than a minute to shake hands and talk with him.
The CPPCC currently has 21 vice chairmen, among them Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive after Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, and Edmund Ho Hau-wah, a former leader of the Chinese territory of Macau.
Normally Hong Kong and Macau leaders would not be promoted to sit as vice chairmen before their terms end. Leung will be the only one to be holding the two roles simultaneously, at least until the end of June this year.
Under the "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy from Beijing, except for defense and foreign policy. The chief executive holding a high-ranking office in Beijing may infringe on this principle. In fact, Leung resigned as a standing committee member of the CPPCC in 2012 after being elected to the top government job in Hong Kong.
"Leung's elevation reflects strong support to his great contribution to link Hong Kong and China together. ... We highly applaud that," Pan Qinglin, a longtime CPPCC delegate told reporters on the sideline of the meeting.
Despite his plummeting popularity at home, Leung's elevation to a high-profile post in the CPPCC is widely viewed as Beijing's approval of his hard-line stance and faithful execution of party bosses' orders in Hong Kong over the past few years, particularly the sweeping crackdown on demonstrators during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Leung is a divisive figure in the former British colony due to his strong pro-Beijing stance and little tolerance for expanding democracy in the semiautonomous financial hub with a population of 7.2 million.
When he ran for Hong Kong's top post in 2012, he secured only 689 votes out of 1,193 election committee members eligible to cast ballots. He is usually mocked as "Mr. 689" by the opposition.
Leung surprised many in December when he announced that he would not seek re-election when his five-year term is up in June this year, making him the first Hong Kong chief executive since the handover to refrain from pursuing a second term.
He cited family reasons for his decision. Asked by reporters about why he is taking a new position when he earlier stated that he needs to spend more time with his family, Leung said the two jobs "are not the same," before boarding a plane to Beijing on Sunday.
Opposition to Taiwan and Hong Kong independence
Meanwhile, during the same meeting on Monday, a senior Chinese official reiterated China's strong opposition to efforts by some in Taiwan and Hong Kong to pursue political independence.
"We would never allow independence for Hong Kong," said Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of CPPCC and the fourth-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.
"At the same time, we will follow the foundation of the '1992 consensus' and strongly object to any form of Taiwan independence movements or activities and will continue our work to facilitate unification," Yu said in a conclusion report at the meeting.
The 1992 consensus refers to a controversial principle that China sees as Taiwan's commitment to eventual unification between the two sides.
However, incumbent Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party does not endorse the principle. Relations between Taipei and Beijing have cooled significantly since Tsai took office in May 2016.
Taiwan and China split amid a civil war in 1949, but Beijing continues to regard the island as part of its territory and refuses to abandon the option of using force to achieve unification if necessary.