23 February 2019
If Carrie Lam wants to depoliticize the atmosphere, she should seek Chinese help to lower rather than amplify political tensions. Photo: AFP
If Carrie Lam wants to depoliticize the atmosphere, she should seek Chinese help to lower rather than amplify political tensions. Photo: AFP

How will Hong Kong fare under Carrie Lam?

With only weeks to go before Carrie Lam is sworn in as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, attention naturally is focused on how she is going to govern and the role the Chinese government will play.

The head of legal affairs of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Wang Zhenmin, recently warned that Hong Kong should not try to change the election system in the next five to 10 years.

The incoming chief executive seems to agree. She has indicated that she wants to focus on livelihood issues such as housing, transportation and the environment.

That is certainly understandable. After all, sensitive political issues don’t lend themselves to easy resolution and are likely to exacerbate tensions rather than promote harmony.

Besides, Beijing is not going to disavow the decision it made in August 2014 regarding its universal suffrage formula.

At the same time, the pro-democracy camp, which vetoed a political reform package based on that ultraconservative formula last June, isn’t about to change its mind either. Time is needed to heal wounds.

There is also Article 23 of the Basic Law, which requires Hong Kong to pass national security legislation. Almost 15 years have gone by since the last attempt, when half a million people marched in protest, and stiff opposition to such legislation continues.

So Carrie Lam is in a difficult situation. Democrats are likely to press for political reform, while the pro-establishment camp will call for national security legislation.

Either move will increase polarization within society and make it harder to focus on livelihood issues.

Hong Kong has gone through several highly politicized years, what with the 2014 decision being followed by Occupy Central and, now, prosecutions of key figures involved in those activities.

The Chinese government is likely to press for more prosecutions and harsher sentences, which if successful will result in turbulence in Hong Kong.

If the Lam administration wants to depoliticize the atmosphere, it should seek Chinese help to lower rather than amplify political tensions.

Beijing should understand this situation. It gave its full support to Candidate Lam, and now it should give her room to maneuver rather than hem her it.

As for the democrats, they must keep the big picture in mind, which must certainly be the welfare of Hong Kong.

Preventing the new administration from doing what it can to improve the livelihood of the people makes little sense.

With the 20th anniversary of the handover approaching on July 1, it is natural to consider the historical perspective.

Looking back, it must be said that China deserves great credit for deciding in 1984, when it initialed the Joint Declaration, that the legislature would be constituted by elections, and in 1990, when the Basic Law was promulgated, that the chief executive would ultimately be chosen through universal suffrage.

These are things that Britain, in 150 years, failed to do.

Not surprisingly, the implementation has not been smooth. In 2007, China agreed that universal suffrage elections could take place in 2017.

Then, in 2014, China’s National People’s Congress spelled out just how such an election would be held.

Under its rules, candidates would have to be nominated by over 50 percent of an Election Committee largely under Beijing’s influence, which could mean that no democrat would ever be nominated.

For there to be any likelihood of progress in the future, Beijing needs to indicate that the 2014 formula is not set in stone and that, some time in the future, it would be willing to consider a more liberal model.

Such an indication would immediately ease the political environment in Hong Kong.

It would mean that the 2014 formula could be accepted as an interim measure, with more democratic procedures introduced over time as both Hong Kong and China evolved.

This would truly reflect the Basic Law, which says: “The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”

Thus, as society developed, a more democratic form could be adopted.

An indication of such a policy would remove a major objection to the 2014 formula. It would make life a lot easier for Carrie Lam.

The earlier Beijing gives such an indication, the better the prospects of success for the governance of the Lam administration.

If Beijing refuses to provide any indication of flexibility, Hong Kong may be facing five more years of fruitless strife and Beijing-orchestrated crackdowns.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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