Awaiting Beijing's signals on Carrie Lam

October 29, 2019 12:21
Unable to put an end to the anti-government protests and restore order to Hong Kong, Carrie Lam faces growing risk of being jettisoned by Beijing midway in her term. Photo: HKEJ

As the Hong Kong government struggles to contain the months-long social unrest in the city, a media report has said recently that Beijing may be drawing up a plan to replace the territory's embattled leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor with an “interim” chief executive by March next year.

This week, a four-day plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China kicked off in Beijing on Monday. During the session, it is likely that a reshuffle in the party leadership as well as policies toward Hong Kong will be on the agenda.

A source in Hong Kong political circles has pointed out that the ongoing fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CPC is a closed-door meeting, and hence there is no way we can find out what is discussed at the meeting. However, we may get some clues later, during two events over the coming month when President Xi Jinping may appear alongside Lam.

It would be worth paying attention as to whether Xi will send any special message about the fate of the chief executive, the person said.

The first occasion where Xi is likely to meet Lam is the upcoming 2nd China International Import Expo (CIIE) which is scheduled to open on Nov. 5 in Shanghai. Xi will officiate at the opening ceremony in the presence of world leaders, including the Hong Kong chief executive.

During the previous CIIE event, Lam had introduced Xi to the theme and content of the Hong Kong section when he toured the China pavilion. Whether the same scene will be replicated again this year will be interesting to watch.

Another upcoming occasion where Xi and Lam could meet will be the APEC summit, due to be held in Chile during November 16-17.

That said, it remains a big “if” as to whether Xi and Lam will meet one-on-one during the event.

It's worth bearing in mind that during the last two APEC summits, the two of them didn’t meet privately.

In fact back in November last year during the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea, Lam was repeatedly asked by the media as to why she wasn’t granted an audience with Xi at the event.

Still enjoying relatively high popularity at that time, the chief executive proudly answered that she didn’t need to use any specific international occasion to communicate with Xi because she had already met with him four times within a month before that.

But now, almost a year later, Hong Kong is a completely different world, and the once highly assertive Lam is fighting for her political life amid the anti-government protests. The administration's popularity has taken a huge hit and Lam's governance credibility eroded drastically.

A political figure in Hong Kong says that even if Lam gets face-to-face private meetings with Xi during the upcoming events in Shanghai and Chile, it won't necessarily mean she is out of the woods.

Giving an example, the person pointed out to what happened to former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying in the past. In November 2016, Leung had a good conversation with Xi when they attended the APEC summit in Peru, setting off speculation that he may get the green light for a second term in office.

However, less than a month after the Peru summit, Leung -- citing family reasons -- announced that he wouldn’t be joining the CE race again. 

Right now, Lam's political future appears up in the air, and nothing can be taken for granted. What we can only predict with absolute certainty, for now, is that the upcoming interaction between Xi and Lam will be watched more closely than usual by the media as well as the general public.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 28

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.