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Hong Kong leader reshuffles cabinet as Beijing tightens oversight

Lam says move unrelated to protests, and her team will focus on economic revival

HONG KONG -- Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled her new top administrative team on Wednesday, in a reshuffle that comes amid immense controversy over the roles and powers of Beijing's representatives in Hong Kong.

Speaking at a news conference shortly after Chinese state media announced the personnel changes, Lam said the move will give her government fresh impetus to map out strategies to revive the city's economy, which has been battered over the past year by social unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.

Lam's news conference came shortly after China's State Council announced the appointment of five new principal officials in Hong Kong, marking the biggest cabinet reshuffle in the semi-autonomous city since the embattled chief executive took office in 2017.

Pro-democracy lawmakers and scholars said the moves reflect Beijing's bid to further tighten its oversight on the former British colony. But Lam denied that the shake-up was linked to the ministers' performance in handling the anti-government protests last year, nor that it was initiated by the central government in Beijing.

The new ministers, overseeing the areas of mainland affairs, technology, financial services, home affairs and civil service, were nominated by Lam and approved by the State Council, the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. Meanwhile, senior officials directly tied to the prolonged protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill remain in office.

"I appreciate all of them, who are dedicated to serving the public in such a difficult time," Lam said as she introduced the new officials. "In the coming two years, I will lead the government in controlling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy."

Lam's current five-year term runs until June 2022.

Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that Wednesday's announcement shows Beijing is taking a tougher stance toward Hong Kong.

"Officials responsible for the protests, despite having the lowest approval ratings, can keep their jobs," Lui said, referring to Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng and Secretary for Security John Lee. "They want to tell Hong Kong people that it will not back down on public demands."

He said that three of the five involved bureaus are politically sensitive, signaling that Beijing wishes to appoint "trusted people" in the Hong Kong government to pave the way to further political crackdowns, including the introduction of a national security law and stepped-up interference in the upcoming Legislative Council elections in September.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Alvin Yeung told public broadcaster RTHK that the reshuffling is "meaningless" as it is designed only to enhance the powers of the chief executive and those behind her, instead of taking accountability for a crisis.

"It's nothing but a power game at the highest level," Yeung said.

Earlier this year, Beijing appointed new chiefs for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and the Liaison Office -- the highest-ranking mainland Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong.

Under the new appointments, Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Patrick Nip will now head the Civil Service Bureau and be succeeded by the current immigration director, Erick Tsang.

Also, Under Secretary for Labor Caspar Tsui will become secretary for Home Affairs; the director of the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department, Alfred Sit, will head up the Innovation and Technology Bureau; and the executive director of the Financial Services Development Council, Christopher Hui, will become secretary for the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau.

Nip was recently at the center of a row after issuing contradictory statements over the constitutional status of Beijing's agencies in Hong Kong.

In the initial statement on Saturday, it said that Article 22 of the Basic Law -- the city's mini-constitution that bars Beijing from interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs -- was applicable to Beijing's liaison office. A revised statement was issued a few hours later, stating that Beijing's agencies were authorized to exercise "supervisory power" on major Hong Kong issues.

Nip later apologized for the "confusion."

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