GP Insights # 182, 11 November 2019
On 4 November, Xi Jinping, the Chinese President sent a categorical message: the Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is here to stay.
The Shanghai meeting between the two leaders was the first formal one after the protests started since July. Xi “fully affirmed” the chief executive’s response to the Hong Kong unrest. The affirmation towards Lam coincided with another fateful event on the same say when a Hong Kong student died after falling while trying to get away from tear gas during protests. It has sparked impromptu protests and vigils after another week of political violence in Hong Kong.
What is the background?
In the past weeks, official media has reported a developing political situation for the removal of the Hong Kong leader. Overturning such reports, her government and Xi Jinping denied rumours off drawing plans to replace Lam. In the past four months of continuing protests, Lam has repeatedly admitted responsibility for the political crisis and have even expressed a desire to resign. She has not only been asked to continue in the office, rather the present display of public faith by Xi has strengthened her position. After the announcement by Xi, the Hong Kong leader has gone on to give a speech in the first Parliamentary sessions since July. However, she has been forced to suspend her annual address after being heckled by the opposition.
What does it mean?
Firstly, Beijing’s decision to support Lam seems to be a logical stance. Replacing her in a city where many see the hand of China in most government policies and pronouncements would have shown just how much Lam is Beijing’s instrument at hand. Lam may not be the best choice for Xi Jinping, but she is the right choice for now. She is the leader elected by Hong Kong and not planted by China giving her the required democratic representation, and if China is looking to stall the crisis till it draws up a final plan, Carrie Lam would indeed serve as the right façade.
Secondly, the Chinese support to Lam, on the one hand, gave the space to Lam but also boosted the morale of the pro-Beijing front in Hong Kong. It is important to note that since July, no Hong Kong officials have lost their jobs which are a sharp contrast with protests elsewhere in the world. In the same time period (past three months), protests in Puerto Rico brought down Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a matter of days; Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stood down after less than two weeks of unrest, and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera dismissed his whole cabinet in response to widespread violent demonstrations. Instead, Carrie Lam was seen dolling out development schemes for her Greater Bay plans in Hong Kong. Lam stressed her commitment to “one country, two systems” and announced several housing and infrastructure policies for the people.
Thirdly this support to Lam would have an impact on the protest, either making it rigorous or slowing down the momentum. However, the most substantial impact has been on the fate of the extradition bill that triggered the months of protests. The Parliamentary session after three months could have been an opportunity to withdraw the bill formally. However, since the opposition stir, the bill has lost its momentum altogether and might never be brought up for a withdrawal later.