15 July 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying as incoming CE Carrie Lam looks on during a visit to the National Museum in Beijing on Monday. Photo: CCTV
Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying as incoming CE Carrie Lam looks on during a visit to the National Museum in Beijing on Monday. Photo: CCTV

Who will be Hong Kong’s real boss: Carrie Lam or still CY Leung?

We all know that Carrie Lam will take her oath of office as Hong Kong’s new chief executive in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the morning of July 1. But on that day, outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will also officially become the city’s senior leader in his capacity as a state leader.

With two people in the top leadership of the Special Administrative Region, a chaotic political environment looms on the horizon.

Lam won the March 26 election for the city’s top job – and nobody is disputing that – but Beijing appears to be endorsing Leung to the role of overseeing Lam’s office.

So the question is: Who will be the real boss in Hong Kong? We all know that Beijing calls the shots in the city. But between Lam and Leung, who really holds the power?

Pro-Beijing media seem to know the answer. The Tuesday edition of pro-Beijing newspapers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po as well as Hong Kong Commercial Daily all carry on their front pages a photo of Xi visiting the National Museum in Beijing, where there’s an exhibit on the achievements of Hong Kong since its return to the motherland in 1997.

The picture shows Leung accompanying the Chinese leader during the visit to the exhibition, while Lam is seen standing far away behind the two gentlemen.

In another picture published by the state-owned newspapers, Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee who is also in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, sits with Leung to meet Lam and other key Hong Kong officials.

Some local commentators said state media appears to treat Lam like she’s invisible. She wasn’t even mentioned in a news coverage of the event by China Central Television.

It’s quite clear then, except perhaps for the hopelessly politically naive, that state media want to portray Leung as the leader of Hong Kong and Lam as one of the city’s lower-ranking officials.

Of course, some people will argue that Lam is not given the treatment that the chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR deserves simply because she has yet to assume the office.

But it is indisputable that such pictures send to the public the message that only CY Leung can talk directly to President Xi, and that even Lam has no such capability.

With such an emphatic portrayal of Leung’s status, Beijing seems to be telling us in Hong Kong that while many of us are not actually devastated to see him go, he will still have a lot of say in Hong Kong affairs, and even Lam will have to take his advice.

On Dec. 9 last year, Leung delivered his shocker of an announcement that he would no longer run for a second term, citing family reasons.

Then Lam changed her mind about retiring at the end of her term as chief secretary and said she was running for chief executive.

At the homestretch of the election campaign in March, Beijing named Leung vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top advisory body, thus effectively making him a state leader.

Then Lam won the election with 777 votes, compared with Leung’s 689 votes in 2012. We expected the pro-Beijing camp to celebrate her victory, and indeed they had.

But Leung, although he was among the first to congratulate Lam, appeared to be reluctant to cooperate with her for a smooth transition of power. 

For example, he refused to suspend the controversial assessment tests for primary 3 students and to reopen the so-called Civic Square at the Central Government Offices in Admiralty, two Lam initiatives.

And in the dying days of his administration, Leung continued to pursue several programs, such as Hong Kong’s participation in the Greater Bay Area development with Guangdong and Macau, and led two site visits without Lam.

Meanwhile, Beijing announced that the head of its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Wang Guangya met with newly appointed members of Lam’s cabinet in Shenzhen last week, just before their appointments were made public.

The appointments were announced on the official website of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, rather than by the Hong Kong government, as such announcements were traditionally done.

The meeting, along with the announcement, does not appear to sit well with the concept of Hong Kong enjoying a high degree of autonomy.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, such a meeting is quite unnecessary, except as a way for Beijing to remind Hong Kong that it still calls the shots in the city.

Of course, Beijing will always have a say in running the city’s affairs since it regained sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997.

But its actions over the past seven months indicate that it intends to tighten its grip on the territory.

Legal scholar Johannes Chan said on Monday he has seen “worrying features” in the “one country, two systems” policy in recent years. He said Beijing appears to have less self-restraint in exercising its powers over the territory while increasing its interference in SAR affairs.

Chan said the central government exercised a high degree of restraint in the early days of the handover. There were a lot of issues that China was prepared to leave to Hong Kong to resolve then.

However, in the last few years, there were growing signs that Beijing “wants Hong Kong to do things the Chinese way”, Chan said.

Beijing’s appointment of CY Leung as a state leader serves as a signal that it doesn’t trust the election mechanism in Hong Kong, or that it is not enough to maintain control over the territory.

Leung’s new role could be that of a Communist Party secretary of Hong Kong, with higher powers over local affairs under the party’s organizational structure, while Lam’s position is like that of a mayor, making her number 2 in the local party hierarchy.

Such an arrangement, of course, will not do anything to resolve the territory’s deep-rooted conflicts and rising tensions.

The city will continue to be mired in political struggle, with Beijing-based bureaucrats undermining the authority of local executives.

Lam should have the courage to stay above the fray and pursue policies for the good of Hong Kong that may not gain support from Beijing, such as exploring areas where her government and the democratic camp can cooperate.

It is clear that Hong Kong people want an end to CY Leung’s style of governance, to political animosities and too much interference from Beijing. 

She can bring about this new era if she has the courage and will to do so, and the people will surely support her.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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