What was the message that required Lam's immediate attention?

October 23, 2019 17:50
Carrie Lam arrives for the enthronement ceremony of Japan's Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo on Tuesday. The Hong Kong leader may have had several things occupying her mind even amid the foreign setting. Pool photo via Reuters

Checking your cellphone while attending a solemn event is deemed not a nice thing to do as such action would raise questions of propriety and much else.

So, it was a bit surprising to hear that an experienced public figure such as Carrie Lam committed a faux pas of sorts on Wednesday, and that too at an enthronement ceremony overseas.

Hong Kong's embattled leader is facing fire on social media after she appeared to be reading a phone text message while seated in an audience in front of Japanese Emperor Naruhito on his big day yesterday. 

Although she didn't disturb the ceremony, which took place at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Lam is being accused by netizens of showing disrespect to Japan, a country that most Hongkongers love, especially the food and culture.

We can only speculate as to what the urgent matter was that prompted Lam to check on her phone even at the risk of offending her hosts and fellow audience members. 

Well, it could be any number of things, given the deep crisis that she is saddled with after her extradition bill disaster. 

Aside from the anti-government protests, which have been turning increasingly violent, and the public's open defiance of a new emergency law on face coverings, the Lam administration is now confronting an escalating political row with Taiwan.

The dispute is in relation to a Hong Kong man who is wanted for a murder committed in Taiwan last year, a case that, as a matter of fact, had served as a pretext for Lam to embark on her extradition bill misadventure.

The murder suspect, a person named Chan Tong-kai who is now aged 20, walked free from jail in Hong Kong on Wednesday after serving an 18-month term for money laundering. 

Taiwan had earlier reportedly put in a request for its officials to be allowed into Hong Kong to take Chan into custody and escort him to Taipei to face trial there.

However, Hong Kong refused permission, saying it cannot have an overseas law enforcement agency operate on its soil. 

Following Chan's release from jail, Hong Kong authorities are saying that Chan should be free to go to Taiwan and surrender himself -- something that he has said he is willing to do.

But Taipei is rejecting that proposal, arguing that an extradition without a legal assistance framework would undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty, as per media reports.

Amid the standoff with Taiwan, it is possible that Lam, who has a reputation of micro-managing things, may have been exchanging messages frequently with her deputy, Matthew Cheung, passing on instructions to her top official even while attending the important event in Japan.

Or perhaps she may be trying to confirm an appointment with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan, who had also traveled to Tokyo for the Naruhito ceremony.

Incidentally, a media report now suggests that China may be drawing up a plan to replace Lam and appoint an interim chief executive for Hong Kong by March next year, aiming to put an end to the turbulent chapter in Hong Kong's history.

Beijing has dismissed the report, calling it a mischievous rumor, but we can say that nothing is off the table.

We should bear in mind that the central authorities replaced Hong Kong's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in 2005 before his term ended. That push came after a million people took to the streets to protest Tung's poor governance, most notably his mishandling of the SARS crisis in 2003.

There is no doubt that Lam is feeling immense pressure now to restore peace and order to Hong Kong and put the city back on track.

With thousands of young protesters taking to the streets every weekend, and often resorting to acts of vandalism, Lam is aware that she may need to go further in meeting the public's demands.

In an interview telecast last weekend, Lam did not rule out the need for more investigations if citizens are not happy with the ongoing, but not independent, examination of police actions.

She also mentioned the possibility of exempting those below 18 years in age from criminal offence proceedings by using the chief executive's powers, without sacrificing the rule of law.

With so much on her mind, we can perhaps forgive Lam for sneaking in a look at her phone during the sacred Japan ceremony on Tuesday.

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EJ Insight writer