With this week’s revelation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee’s new lineup, the world got to know who will be the most powerful men to rule China for the next five years.
Included within the Chinese regime’s authority are the financial hubs Hong Kong and Macau. Who among the seven men in the Standing Committee, the CCP’s top decision-making body, will be in charge of the two special administrative regions?
There are critical clues. The ranking of the Standing Committee members, which reflects their political power, has been announced. Number one is the general secretary and top Party boss, Xi Jinping. Number two is the premier, Li Keqiang.
Number six, Zhao Leji, will be heading the anti-corruption and disciplinary body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. For the rest of the committee members, their administrative positions have not been officially announced yet.
But according to precedent, the Standing Committee member ranked number three during the previous term heads the National People’s Congress Standing Committee—and along with that position, also heads the CCP’s office for Hong Kong and Macau affairs.
Thus, the newly appointed number three, Li Zhanshu, is likely to become the next CCP official overseeing Hong Kong and Macau. The two cities were former European colonies that were transferred to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
Li, 67, is a close confidant of Xi. He has served as chief of staff since Xi took power in 2012. The two men knew each other in the 1980s, when they both held posts as party secretaries of local counties in Hebei Province.
Back in April this year, when the newly elected Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam visited Xi in Zhongnanhai, Li was included in a meeting with a group of officials in the CCP agency in charge of Hong Kong and Macau, the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs—leading to some observers’ speculation at the time that Li would be the successor.
Li’s appointment would mean that for the first time since Hong Kong and Macau were returned to China, the two cities would not be under the control of officials loyal to former CCP leader Jiang Zemin.
Hong Kong enjoys relative autonomy and has a separate system of government, owing to the Joint Declaration negotiated between the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China in 1997 setting out terms for the handover of sovereignty.
But local residents are increasingly disgruntled at the growing encroachment on local affairs by mainland Chinese authorities.
Jiang was able to exert his influence over Hong Kong and Macau long after he stepped down from power in the early 2000s—through his associates Zeng Qinghong, Zhang Dejiang, and former chief executive Leung Cheung-ying.
Though the CCP has not established a department to directly govern Hong Kong, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and the Hong Kong Liaison Office essentially act as Beijing’s intermediaries.
After the public uproar in 2003 surrounding the Hong Kong government’s proposal of Article 23, an anti-subversion legislation that was viewed as potentially dismantling the protections of basic rights in Hong Kong, the CCP appointed Zeng Qinghong, then a high-ranking Politburo Standing Committee member, to directly carry out the Beijing leadership’s wishes through the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs.
After Zeng retired in 2007, Xi was appointed leader of the group. But because Jiang still held power in Beijing from behind the scenes, he was able to keep Zeng in charge of affairs in Hong Kong.
After Xi took power as head of the CCP, Jiang faction official—and then the third-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member—Zhang Dejiang became the leader of the group. Some political observers have said that first Zeng, and then Zhang, may have instigated local unrest in Hong Kong to distract the Xi leadership.
In June 2012, a few months before Xi took power, a CCP front group emerged called the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, which began disrupting activities by local adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice persecuted in mainland China. The organization is headquartered in the nearby mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, where it shares an office with the local 610 office, a Gestapo-like state police created to carry out the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. Members in Hong Kong are paid to yell at, beat, and generally distract Hong Kong practitioners from gathering at locations where they pass out information about the practice. With chief executive Leung’s endorsement, the Youth Care Association operated with impunity, with police often turning a blind eye.
In the summer of 2014, the CCP issued a white paper demanding “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, which alarmed many Hong Kongers. The paper threatened to do away with the policy of “one country, two systems” that had governed Hong Kong since 1997 and secured the city’s liberties and self-government.
This was followed in August by a decision from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress regarding how Hong Kong’s 2016 Legislative Council and 2017 chief executive elections would be conducted. That decision, which was viewed by many in Hong Kong as overly restrictive, triggered the Umbrella Movement protests calling for universal suffrage.
China current affairs commentator Ji Da observed that Xi’s camp gaining control of Hong Kong signals that there will be major changes in the city.
In Xi’s opening speech to the major Party conclave, the 19th National Congress last week, he devoted more time talking about Hong Kong and Macau than his predecessors, hinting that Xi regards the issue as a priority.
In recent years, the personnel in the Liaison Office in Hong Kong and Macau has been replaced with Xi allies, such as Wang Zhimin and Zheng Xiaosong, both of whom were Xi’s colleagues when they held posts in Fujian Province. At the congress, they were both promoted to the powerful Central Committee.
Li Ling-pu contributed to this report.