HONG KONG -- China has ousted its highest-ranking official in charge of Hong Kong after months of anti-government protests, further cementing control over the semi-autonomous city.
The change forms part of a bigger shake-up in the Chinese Communist Party, whose chiefs in coronavirus-stricken Hubei Province and its capital of Wuhan have been relieved of their duties.
Xia Baolong, a 67-year-old vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, was announced Thursday as the successor to Zhang Xiaoming, 56, as director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office at the State Council, China's cabinet.
"It is a widely expected move by Beijing to calm public anger in the midst of the virus crisis, which has given rise to concerns about economic recession and even the party's governance," said veteran China observer Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"The utmost priority of Beijing now is to restore people's confidence by shoring up the economy," Lui said.
Replacing the Hong Kong affairs director at this critical time shows that stability in the financial hub is "very important strategically" to the Chinese economy, he said. As China struggles with such issues as mounting local government debt, Hong Kong could serve as a "lifesaving window" for raising foreign capital, Lui explained.
Xia is considered a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping from when Xi was Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang Province in the 2000s. He is also known for a hard-line approach in a 2015 campaign to demolish churches there. Yet Xia has no known experience in Hong Kong affairs.
"The choice reflects that the Communist Party aims to exert more control over Hong Kong policies by appointing more close allies to the office," Lui said. The party will continue tightening its grip on Hong Kong, and political reform "is unlikely in the near future," he said.
Meanwhile, former Hong Kong affairs chief Zhang was demoted to deputy director, making him the most senior official to lose his job since the anti-government protests broke out last year. His ouster follows Beijing's move in January to replace its top liaison here, also with an older cadre lacking Hong Kong experience.
"Huge news for HK," tweeted Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of "City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong."
Now the two most senior Chinese leaders responsible for Hong Kong during the protests "have been booted out," Dapiran wrote. "That [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam still has her job just shows that she/the CE role is irrelevant" to Beijing's rule over Hong Kong, he added.
But scholars see Lam as unlikely to be replaced soon, even as she logs historically low approval ratings.
"It is difficult for Xi to make replacement in terms of potential candidates who can continue the repressive measures taken under Carrie Lam's rule," said Benson Wong, a politics lecturer in Hong Kong.
"She is only a puppet, so it is not important whether Lam would be in the position or not in this regard," Wong said.
"Carrie Lam is certainly the next in line" for replacement, Hong Kong Baptist University politics professor Kenneth Chan said. "The only reason why she is kept is President Xi has yet to come up with a person who could possibly obtain more than half of the 1,200-strong election committee to replace her."
"The problem for us in Hong Kong is such changes of appointment will not end the crisis, which is systemic," he said.