21 October 2018
Carrie Lam's planned visit to the Liaison Office on the second day after her victory was intended to downplay its role in her election. Photos: HKEJ, Google Maps
Carrie Lam's planned visit to the Liaison Office on the second day after her victory was intended to downplay its role in her election. Photos: HKEJ, Google Maps

Can Carrie Lam say ‘no’ to Sai Wan?

One of the most urgent tasks Carrie Lam needs to do before she takes office is to clarify the relationship between her administration and Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

Will Sai Wan take a step back and not interfere in the affairs of the new administration?

Hong Kong people know that the Liaison Office actively campaigned for Lam, making phone calls to Election Committee members and helping her reach out to grassroots communities.

It also helped facilitate a meeting in Shenzhen between state leaders and local politicians and was widely believed to be the unseen hand in the negative news coverage by the pro-Beijing media of John Tsang.

Sai Wan itself functioned as a de facto campaign headquarters for Lam. With a similar push from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Lam came to be known as CY2.0.

Lam planned a visit to the Liaison Office on the second day after her election. On the first day, she visited the legislature, judiciary and the administration and met some members of the public.

These moves were intended to play down Sai Wan’s role in her election victory.

Later, Lam told a radio talk show that she won’t proactively seek the help of the Liaison Office in getting votes in the Legislative Council. She will secure the support from all lawmakers from the pro-establishment camp but would not stop the Liaison Office from doing its own work.

It seems that Lam would take a relatively firm approach toward Sai Wan compared with Leung.

In addition, she indirectly criticized Leung for Beijing’s intervention in local politics in violation of “one country, two systems”.

During the election campaign, Hong Kong people stood with John Tsang, giving him a solid lead in public opinion polls while Leung and the Liaison Office backed Lam.

Lam fully recognised that her low approval rating was mostly due to public perceptions that she was Beijing’s preferred candidate.

Now, Lam is trying to distance herself from Leung and Sai Wan before her administration takes office on July 1.

Against that backdrop, Lam is in no hurry to visit the Liaison Office. As for Leung, Lam had a taste of what it’s like to break with him. When she asked him to stop the controversial Territory-wide System Assessment in May, she was rebuffed.  

Indeed, Lam and Leung may not be as friendly as the public might think.

It’s also possible that Lam’s statements on stopping the Liaison Office from meddling in local affairs will lead to a rift between her and Sai Wan.

Several critics say that Leung and Sai Wan were the last to know about Beijing’s decision to stop Leung from running for a second term as top leaders had no confidence in him winning more than 600 votes in the election.

Lam emerged as Leung’s replacement and Sai Wan geared up all efforts to secure support for her. Like Leung, Lam was seen as the only one who could carry out Beijing’s designs on Hong Kong.

With Leung elected as a state leader, he and Liaison Office chief Zhang Xiaoming could continue to exert influence on the government.

Lam was seen trying to nip that prospect in the bud by not meeting with Zhang after her election.

Tien Feilong, a Chinese scholar on Hong Kong affairs, said Beijing may need to review the function of the Liaison Office as Hong Kong people are unhappy with its role beyond the Basic Law.

He told a media interview that the Liaison Office is similar to Government House under the British colonial administration. Beijing could adjust the Basic Law to give the Liaison Office a proper role in Hong Kong, he said.

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EJ Insight writer

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