The ruling Chinese Communist Party has demoted its official in charge of Hong Kong following months of mass protests in the city, appointing a hardline senior official who presided over the tearing down of crosses and the forcible demolition of churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Xia Baolong, who was party secretary of Zhejiang during a political campaign to demolish Christian churches and crosses from 2012-2017, now heads the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of China's cabinet, the State Council.
Its former leader Zhang Xiaoming has been demoted to deputy director in charge of day-to-day operations, the State Council said in a statement on Thursday. Reuters reported in December that Zhang had backed a widely hated extradition bill that would have allowed the extradition of anyone in Hong Kong to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.
Xia is seen as a trusted ally of President Xi Jinping, after he served as his second-in-command in Zhejiang from 2003-2007. His appointment is effectively an upgrade for the HKMAO, indicating that Xi sees the handling of Hong Kong as a top priority.
Chang Chia-lin, professor of religious culture and organization management at Taiwan's Aletheia University, said Xia is notorious as the architect of cross demolitions in Zhejiang, a campaign that had won him approbation from the president.
"Xia Baolong wields huge influence, because after Zhejiang demolished crosses, other provinces like Hebei and Henan did the same," Chang told RFA. "The forcible demolition of churches hasn't stopped."
"Can the government take such a hard line in Hong Kong and Macau? Xia Baolong will have to consider this after he takes up his post."
Hong Kong political commentator Liu Ruishao said the choice of an official with no background in Hong Kong or Macau also indicates Xi's intention to rule the former colonial cities with an iron grip in future.
"[Officials not familiar with Hong Kong and Macau] can only faithfully implement Xi Jinping's policies there, while Zhang Xiaoming and others ... will have no real power," Liu said.
"If they are going to take such a hard line in Hong Kong and Macao, then I don't think that Xia Baolong is suddenly going to soften up when he gets here," he said. "Rather, he will gradually take over power in accordance with Xi Jinping's requirements, for example by influencing the judicial system, the government, and through economic pressure."
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam welcomed the news of Xia's appointment, saying in a statement that "the central government attaches great importance to Hong Kong and Macau affairs."
"Xi now has his proteges in place over Hong Kong for the first time," Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Reuters.
"Xia is not a moderate and he has shown himself to be a zealous servant of Xi Jinping. We can expect that to continue," he said.
State of crisis
Rights groups have warned that Hong Kong is now in a state of humanitarian crisis after police fired more than 16,000 rounds of tear gas in recent months, with around 1,000 of those fired into the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus during a single day in November.
Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons on unarmed protesters.
A recent opinion poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong's residents support the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.
Only 30 percent said they were opposed, compared with 59 percent of those polled who supported the movement.
Plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to make amendments to extradition laws that would allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests in June, soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators and demands for fully democratic elections.
Lam has since formally withdrawn the hated amendments, but has stopped short of meeting protesters' demands for an amnesty for arrestees, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as "rioters," and fully democratic elections.
Reported by Fong Tak-ho, Lu Xi and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.