The ruling Chinese Communist Party has promoted its hard-line representative in Hong Kong following a series of high-profile interventions in the city's political life, as commentators warned that the city's freedoms of speech, press and association could be a thing of the past.
Zhang Xiaoming, 54, who heads Beijing's Central Liaison Office in the city, will replace Wang Guangya head the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China's cabinet, the State Council, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Monday.
Zhang, who has been Beijing's representative in the former British colony since December 2012, will return to Beijing "very soon," to begin his new job and to attend the 19th Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 18, the paper said.
His promotion comes after he went further than his predecessors in promoting Beijing's views and attacking its critics in Hong Kong, where promises of a "high degree of autonomy" following the 1997 handover have been superseded by fears for judicial independence and freedoms of speech and association.
Zhang's tenure has seen the 2014 student-led democracy movement, an intervention by China's parliament, the National People's Congress, that saw the disqualification of six pro-democracy lawmakers, and the unprecedented jailing of student protest leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow by the city's Court of Appeal.
His willingness to speak out against critics of the Chinese government have earned him a reputation as a hard-liner, and his promotion is a sign that Beijing's hands-on policies in Hong Kong look set to continue, analysts said.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the Baptist University, said Beijing's recent willingness to intervene in the running of Hong Kong is dubbed "ruling Hong Kong according to law" by Chinese officials.
"All the signs are that the central government has stepped up this 'ruling Hong Kong according to law' strategy in recent years, which means that they weaponize the law to resolve certain issues," Lui said.
He said the reshuffle may have something to do with concerns over widespread support for independence among young Hong Kongers, bringing in Zhang's second-in-command to address disaffection among younger people.
"Why are they now promoting the director of the Central Liaison Office? Beijing likely believes that Wang Zhimin has had a certain amount of success and experience with youth work," Lui said.
"That is a major priority for the central government in Hong Kong right now."
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-Ki said Zhang's tenure, which broadly coincided with the rule of former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, was one of the most divisive periods in Hong Kong's history.
"Zhang Xiaoming and Leung Chun-ying have created divisions in Hong Kong throughout the past five years," Kwok told RFA. "It is pretty clear from Zhang's promotion that there will be no change of direction."
"Relations between Hong Kong and the central government, and divisions in Hong Kong society ... will continue to worsen which I think is very bad news," he said.
Growing talk of independence has coincided with the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
But pan-democratic politicians say they have no truck with the idea, and have accused China of manufacturing the problem deliberately.
Pro-Beijing politicians have called for action against activists who put up a series of banners calling for independence for the city on university campuses this month, saying those who "break the law" should be punished.
Protesters have also gathered, calling for a criminal investigation into the banners, and for pro-democracy academic Benny Tai to be fired from the University of Hong Kong.
Legislator and solicitor Junius Ho told a rally on Sunday that anyone who attempts to separate Hong Kong from China should be "killed."
Speaking to reporters during a mass rally demanding the University of Hong Kong sack Occupy Movement leader Benny Tai on Sunday, Ho asked "if [independence-seekers] are not killed, what else are we to do?"
He added: "It's not a crime to slaughter pigs or dogs," saying that "people who act to promote independence subvert the fate of the entire country, and force all Hongkongers and the 1.3-billion people of China to pay a huge cost."
Official warns of violence
As pan-democratic politicians and academics said discussion of independence should be protected by the principle of freedom of speech, a Chinese official warned of "violence" if universities didn't move to censor the banners, however.
Lau Siu-kai, vice chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said that various "forces" including the central government and members of the public could enter university campuses to counter calls for independence.
He called on university chiefs to take steps to "control" the situation themselves.
Hong Kong political commentator Liu Ruishao said Zhang's promotion further reflects Beijing's disregard for public opinion in Hong Kong.
"There is a slogan that is very popular in Beijing right now: 'We ignore you, and we ignore reason,'" Liu said. "This [mindset] explains why Beijing has taken a tougher line in Hong Kong in the past few years."
"There are a lot of people working for the Office of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs who have the ability to reflect the actual situation in Hong Kong [to the leadership], but they're being sidelined because they don't toe the central government's line," Liu said.
"That means that authentic voices like theirs aren't being heard by the central government," Lui said. "That's why I don't hold out much hope for Zhang's tenure [as head of the Office]."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.