China has replaced its top envoy to Hong Kong, state media reported on Saturday, the most significant personnel change by Beijing since pro-democracy protests erupted in the city nearly seven months ago.
The removal of the head of the Liaison Office, which represents the central government in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, comes as the city grapples with its biggest political crisis in decades.
"Wang Zhimin has been dismissed from his position as head of the Liaison Office" and replaced by Luo Huining, state broadcaster CCTV said, without giving details.
Millions have come out on the streets since June last year in a wave of protests sparked by opposition to a now-abandoned proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China.
But they soon morphed into a larger demand for greater democratic freedoms in the starkest challenge to Beijing since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The demonstrations have often descended into violent clashes between hardcore protesters and the police, and Wang had condemned them as "rioters" that needed to be brought to justice.
The Liaison Office, whose director is the highest-ranking Chinese political official in Hong Kong, was targeted in July by protesters throwing eggs and graffitiing the building.
Hong Kong is ruled under the "one country, two systems" principle, which gives the territory rights unseen on mainland China -- but demonstrators say these are being steadily eroded by an increasingly assertive central government in Beijing.
Protesters are demanding fully free elections to elect the city's leadership, amnesty for the thousands arrested during the protests, and an inquiry into the conduct of the police.
- 'Positive development' -
While the extradition bill that started the protests was eventually withdrawn, the Chinese government and the Hong Kong administration have since refused further concessions.
In November, Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory in a municipal-level vote -- seen as a referendum on the city's Beijing-backed government.
China has denied allegations that it is clamping down on the city's freedoms, has dismissed the movement's political grievances and painted it as a foreign-backed plot.
It has also continued to back Hong Kong's deeply unpopular leader Carrie Lam.
The city leader said in a statement that she had "no doubt" the new head of the liaison office would help "promote the integration of Hong Kong into the overall development of the nation and the positive development of the relationship between the Mainland and Hong Kong".
She also thanked Wang, who had served for years in a number of positions at the Liaison Office before his appointment as its director, for giving her government "staunch support" and "a lot of confidence and encouragement" during the crisis.
In early December, following media reports that Beijing was considering replacing him, Wang had vowed to continue.
Luo, his replacement, previously served as governor of Qinghai province, and was also appointed to senior Communist Party positions in Qinghai and Shanxi provinces, according to state-run China Daily.
His Hong Kong appointment comes a week after he was made vice-chairman of Financial and Economic Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress, China's national legislature, according to China Daily.
Luo Huining (pictured) has replaced Wang Zhimin as China's top envoy to Hong Kong
Hong Kong has been shaken by nearly seven months of pro-democracy protests
Protesters in Hong Kong are demanding an inquiry into the conduct of the police