China sets up HK crisis command centre at border

HONG KONG/SHENZHEN • Tightening control over efforts to manage the upheaval in Hong Kong, the Chinese leadership has set up a crisis command centre on the mainland side of the border and is considering replacing its official liaison to the restive semi-autonomous city, people familiar with the matter said.

As violent protests roil Hong Kong, top Chinese leaders in recent months have been managing their response from a villa on the outskirts of Shenzhen, bypassing the formal bureaucracy through which Beijing has supervised the financial hub for two decades.

Ordinarily, communications between Beijing and Hong Kong are conducted through a Chinese government body: the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong. The Liaison Office is housed in a Hong Kong skyscraper stacked with surveillance cameras, ringed by steel barricades and topped by a reinforced glass globe.

In a sign of dissatisfaction with the Liaison Office’s handling of the crisis, Beijing is considering potential replacements for the body’s director, Mr Wang Zhimin, two people familiar with the situation said. He is the most senior mainland political official stationed in Hong Kong.

The office has come under criticism in Hong Kong and China for misjudging the situation in the city.

The Liaison Office may face increased pressure after voters delivered a resounding defeat to pro-Beijing parties in local district elections on Sunday. Pro-democracy candidates won almost 90 per cent of the seats, securing their first-ever majority after a campaign against Beijing’s perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s liberties.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office in Hong Kong called the report “false”, without elaborating, in a statement posted on its website yesterday. “No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the Chinese government’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests is unwavering,” it said.

The statement said China was committed to the “one country, two systems” framework that governs Hong Kong’s affairs, and was opposed to “external forces” interfering in the city’s affairs.

The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Liaison Office in Hong Kong did not reply to faxed requests for comment. The office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declined to comment for this report.

The crisis centre is located at the secluded Bauhinia Villa, a property owned by the Hong Kong Liaison Office, according to sources and official media, and named after the orchid that adorns the Hong Kong flag and currency. The villa, just across Hong Kong’s border with the mainland, has served as a crisis centre before: Senior Chinese officials stayed there during the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in 2014.

Top mainland officials have been gathering at the leafy compound to plot strategy and issue instructions aimed at defusing the crisis, said six people familiar with the matter. The Beijing authorities have been summoning key Hong Kong officials to meet at the villa during the five months of increasingly violent anti-government protests, the sources said.

In an indication of the operation’s importance, Chinese President Xi Jinping is receiving daily written briefings from Bauhinia Villa, said two officials and another person familiar with the operation.

The mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

A Shenzhen businessman with close ties to Chinese officials described the villa complex as a “front-line command centre” that the authorities are using as a base for coordinating and monitoring the Hong Kong situation in a secure environment.

Mass protests erupted in June over a now-withdrawn extradition Bill that would have allowed individuals to be sent for trial to the mainland. Beijing wants to restore order in the city, but without being seen as calling the shots.

The lakeside setting of the villa, in a wooded neighbourhood, enables Beijing and Hong Kong officials to meet away from the glare of the Hong Kong media and the chaos of the city’s protest-clogged streets.

The use of Bauhinia Villa to manage the crisis sets up a supplementary channel to the system that Beijing put in place to oversee Hong Kong after China regained control of the city from Britain in 1997.

“The Hong Kong situation has increasingly made the Beijing authorities uncomfortable,” said Mr Sonny Lo, a veteran Hong Kong political commentator. Their desire for security and discretion, is “the reason they select Shenzhen rather than Hong Kong as a kind of parallel headquarters in dealing with the Hong Kong crisis”, he said.



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