Tag Archives: Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam’s Departure Will Not Lessen Beijing’s Security Focus On Hong Kong

Carrie Lam, seen at the Asia Society, New York on June 9, 2016 when she was still Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Photo credit: Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society. Licenced under Creative Commons.

CARRIE LAM’S ANNOUNCEMENT that she will not seek a second term as Hong Kong’s chief executive comes as little surprise.

Her assertion that she informed Beijing of her intention a year ago may be an effort to deflect the jumped-or-pushed question. Yet, as this Bystander noted when the 64-year old Lam added a few tearful words to the conclusion of her annual policy speech last October, it seemed clear then that there would be no second term.

She will leave office on June 30, having recorded the lowest public approval rating for the officeholder since London handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and as the city emerges from the worst Covid-19 outbreak in China. 

Of course, public popularity matters little for candidates for chief executive as a committee of pro-Beijing electors fills the position.

Lam has overseen what history will likely regard as a pivotal period of national security legislation to clamp down on dissent as Beijing tightened its grip on the city’s affairs and systematically dismantled organised opposition to its control. 

In 2019, Lam sparked months of anger and discontent by proposing a law to allow extraditions to mainland China. That had to be withdrawn in the face of street protests, but the controversial National Security law followed in 2020, effectively ending Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.

The election of her successor on May 8 will be the first conducted under last year’s sweeping electoral reforms. These gave local authorities greater powers to vet candidates and ensure that only ‘patriots’ could stand in elections. They also require a loyalty oath from all Hong Kong elected officials, from local councillors to legislators, to screen out pro-democracy candidates.

Lam’s number two, Chief Secretary John Lee, appears to be Beijing’s choice as her successor. Lee, a former deputy police commissioner, was a security official during the 2019 protests and was elevated to the top leadership ranks last year, now seemingly in preparation for taking over.

His appointment would signal Beijing’s intention to sharpen its focus on security and tighter control of Hong Kong’s governance, but with a veneer of competence that was absent in Lam’s ill-starred term.

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Hong Kong’s Allure Dims

Hong Kong skyline, September 2014

ANOTHER SIDELIGHT ON the Omicron surge in Hong Kong: people are fleeing the city in the greatest numbers since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Government data show 27,703 net departures in the week ended February 20. That is a rise of 37% on the previous week.

Thousands of residents have left Hong Kong in the last two years, driven away by the fear of infection and the political crackdown. For the past two years, Hong Kong has seen its population decline at an annual rate of 1.2%.

That also includes a small but significant outflow of staff from international firms reassessing the city as a regional business hub. The city’s strict quarantine policies have made travel in and out of the city a particular problem for the dealmakers at financial firms.

However, the latest rise in people crossing into the mainland via the border crossing rather than the airport suggests that infection fears of residents are the primary motivation at this point.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has announced that mandatory testing will start next month and the school year curtailed. Elections to her own post have been postponed to May 8 from March 27 so her administration can devote its resources to fighting the outbreak.

The emigration has not reached the point of ‘will the last person to leave Hong Kong, please turn off the lights’, but the city’s allure is dimming amidst the pandemic, which may only accelerate its decline into being just another city in southern China.

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Hong Kong To Mass Test By Mid-March

Chart showing rolling seven day average of new Covid-19 infections in Hong Kong up to February 21, 2022. Source: Our World in Data. Licenced under Creative Commons BY

WHEN WE TOOK the same snapshot of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 infections just four days ago, the figure for the seven-day rolling average for daily new confirmed cases was 600. It is now more than 1,000.

More than 6,000 new cases were reported on February 22. That is half as many as were recorded over the first two years of the pandemic.

Hong Kong University’s disease modellers’ latest forecast is that infections could peak at 180,000 a day by mid-May, and the death toll top 3,000, ten times the current total. The city’s under-inoculated and vaccine-hesitant elderly population is particularly vulnerable.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is stating the obvious when she says that the quickly worsening epidemic has far exceeded her administration’s ability to tackle it.

The city has tried to follow Beijing’s zero-tolerance policy to contain the virus without the draconian lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing deployed on the mainland.

However, with the city’s hospitals and quarantine facilities now overwhelmed by the Omicron variant, Lam has ordered all of the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants to undergo three rounds of mandatory PCR testing starting in mid-March.

The conclusion to be inevitably drawn is that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Hongkongers could be in isolation within weeks. Mass testing also risks diverting resources from the urgent work of vaccinating the elderly.

The rapidity with which the Omicron variant has overwhelmed the city’s public health defences has alarmed Beijing for all the obvious reasons. It is just one of the reasons that it is taking control of Hong Kong’s response and shipping in expertise and additional quarantine facilities, isolation wards and hospital capacity.

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Covid Fight May Delay Hong Kong Chief Executive Election

Carrie Lam, seen at the Asia Society, New York on June 9, 2016 when she was still Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Photo credit: Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society. Licenced under Creative Commons.

AS A CODA to our observations on the surge in Covid infections in Hong Kong, we note the suggestion of Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole deputy on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, that the all-hands-on-deck fight against the outbreak in the city would be a reason for postponing the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive due to be held on March 27.

As it is a thankless job that no one appears to want — there are no announced serious candidatures, not even that of the incumbent Carrie Lam (above) — that could prove convenient all around.

Update: Lam says she will postpone the election to May 8.

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Carrie Lam Lays Out Hong Kong’s ‘New Era’ For Her Successor

CARRIE LAM’S TERM of office as Hong Kong’s chief executive has been ill-starred. In what will probably be her last annual policy address this week, she laid out what she will leave to her successor.

Mostly that will be yet more national security legislation and related indoctrination in schools. She promised initiatives to thwart supposed threats to national security, including strengthening measures to combat local terrorism and bolstering cyber and data security. Legislation to criminalise ‘fake news’, hate speech and insults to public officers will be considered.

Lam also outlined plans to build a ‘Northern Metropolis’ in Hong Kong near the border with Shenzhen, which will provide homes for 2.5 million people and 500,000 jobs. Hong Kong chronic shortage of housing keeps property prices high, a grievance that Beijing glommed on to as an explanation of the city’s civil unrest in 2019.

Hong Kong’s next chief executive will be elected in March. Lam is eligible to stand for re-election but has not said whether she will. This Bystander doubts it; a few tearful words at the conclusion of her speech points that way.

As a bridge between Beijing and the Hong Kong public, she has been much trampled over. She is not a popular figure, but with the chief executive to be chosen by a committee of pro-Beijing electors, that does not matter. Beijing may choose to thumb its nose at local public opinion by keeping her on, but it is more likely that Hong Kong’s ‘new era’ will get a new chief executive. However, whoever that is, the role will primarily be a conduit of Beijing’s instructions.

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Washington’s China Hawks Run Free

THE IMPOSITION OF sanctions by the United States on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and ten other current and former officials in the city, is likely more symbolic than substantive. It is rare if not unprecedented, however, for the United States to sanction a head of government. To this Bystander, still spinning from the seemingly daily ratcheting up of US-China tensions by Washington, it feels that they mark the crossing of a threshold, with the China hawks in the US administration having been given free rein and no longer holding back.

The sanctions, imposed under the executive order US President Donald Trump signed in July to punish Beijing for imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, will mean that the eleven will have any property in the US seized and their financial assets frozen. Lam, for one, says she has no assets in the US; this Bystander would hazard that the rest do not either at this point, if they ever did.

The others sanctioned include Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Chris Tang, and his predecessor, Stephen Lo, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng, Security Secretary John Lee, Xia Baolong, head of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office and Luo Huining, director of the Hong Kong liaison office.

The sanctions announcement followed hard on the US president ordering US firms to stop doing business with WeChat, the messaging app owned by Tencent, and with the ByteDance-owned video-sharing app, TikTok. The twin executive orders are stayed until September 20, five days after the deadline that the White House has given to Microsoft to conclude an agreement to acquire TikTok’s operations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Decoupling TikTok is in the vanguard of the United States’ ‘Clean Network’ initiative to drive Chinese owned apps and components out of US businesses and those of US allies. It was conceived to thwart Chinese telecoms companies Huawei Technology and ZTE in 5G markets. Announcing the initiative’s expansion earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the administration’s most hostile China hard-liners, said:

The Clean Network program is the Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.

On another front, the Trump administration also announced recommendations that would lead to the long-threatened delisting of Chinese companies from US stock exchanges unless Beijing allows US regulators adequate access to their audited accounts.

Meanwhile, the imminent arrival in Taipei of US health secretary Alex Azar, the highest-level US cabinet official to visit since Washington cut ties with Taipei more than 40 years ago, may prove the most incendiary of Washington’s recent provocations.

That may finally test Beijing’s patience. So far, its public response has been firm but measured, as it has been to each successive provocation from Washington. Wolf diplomacy has been held back. Yang Jiechi, the Politburo member who is the Party’s leading foreign policy strategist, gave an olive-branch speech on US-China relations on Friday, following on speeches and interviews given by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the same vein. Large-scale purchases of US agricultural produce have also been made to keep the US-China Phase One Trade Agreement alive, with the first round of high-level progress-monitoring talks still possible.

One interpretation of the intensifying of the US administration’s actions is that the president believes continuing to pile pressure on China will be a winning tactic in the run-up to the November election in which he is trailing Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the polls. Another is that the China hawks in the White House, fearful that Trump will not be re-elected in November, are putting in place a web of containment measures that will carry over into the new administration, embedding a de facto ‘cold war’.

Strong anti-China policies would resonate with voters in the United States, where unfavourable views of China have climbed rapidly among both parties over the past year, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center published at the end of last month. Eighty-three per cent of Republicans and 68% of Democrats said they had an unfavourable view of China, record highs for both groups. However, only one-third of Democrats say that it is more important to get tougher with China than to build a stronger relationship with it, against two-thirds of Republicans. At 38%, Republicans are also twice as likely as Democrats to describe China as ‘an enemy’.

Beijing’s strategy of taking it on the chin until November in the hope of a change of administration in the US makes sense in that light, as do US intelligence reports that Chinese disinformation campaigns are being deployed in the Biden cause. If it could ever be done, it would make for a fascinating case study to see how they negated Russian disinformation the intelligence reports say is being used to promote a Trump re-election.

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Beijing Fires Its Top Hong Kong Official

BEIJING HAS REPLACED its top official in Hong Kong, a sign of its growing impatience with the handling of the six months of protest that have roiled the city.

Wang Zhimin, who has been the director of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong since 2017, has been replaced by Luo Huining, formerly party boss in the northern province of Shanxi.

The change was announced in a terse, two-sentence statement but came amid growing speculation that Wang’s days were numbered, speculation that has only intensified following the defeat of pro-government and pro-Beijing candidates in November’s district council elections.

The 65 years old Luo has no known connections with Hong Kong, suggesting the top leadership in Beijing plans to clean out the Liaison Office of officials who have a historic closeness to the Hong Kong bureaucracy that it believes impaired their effectiveness in dealing with the protests.

Luo’s party seniority and age support this view.  He has been a full member of the Party’s Central Committee for eight years and has a reputation for having being a reliable executor in Shanxi of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. He had previously risen through the ranks in Qinghai in western China.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, remains in place, at least for now, having been publicly praised last month by Xi for her courage in ‘most difficult’ times.

These look set to continue, with tens of thousands of protesters welcoming in the new year with largely peaceful pro-democracy marches (not the ‘rampage‘ reported by state media). At the same time, in a New Year’s speech, Xi reinforced Beijing’s wish for a ‘stable and prosperous’ Hong Kong. Bridging the two will be Luo’s not inconsiderable task.

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Hong Kong Protestors’ Electoral Win May Stiffen Beijing’s Resolve

THE QUESTION NOW is, how will Beijing react?

The landslide victory of the pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s district elections on Sunday and the high turnout that accompanied it has removed any lingering doubts of how widespread is the support for the protests that have been underway in the city for more than three months.

Pro-democracy councillors won a majority of 452 seats up for election taking nearly 60% of the vote. They will now control 17 of the 18 district councils. Pro-Beijing councillors controlled the lot before. Turnout was a record 71%, against 45% in 2015, with just shy of 3 million Hongkongers voting, twice as many as in the previous district elections.

It seems that the pro-Beijing camp massively underestimated the popular support for the protests and believed, erroneously as it turned out, that the election results would underline that, allowing authorities to portray the results as a rejection of violence and to crack down further on the hardest-line protestors. Had they had a more accurate grip on the public mood, the elections might have been cancelled coming as they did at the end of the most violent fortnight of protests to date.

The councils have little authority beyond advising on litter collection and similar hyperlocal matters, but the vote was always going to be a referendum on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s handling of the protests. In a post-election statement, she said:

The HKSAR Government respects the election results. There are various analyses and interpretations in the community in relation to the results, and quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society. The HKSAR Government will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect.

While state media’s reporting of the results has been muted, to say the least, the stridently nationalist Party-controlled Global Times took a less conciliatory view in an editorial:

Hong Kong radical forces and Western supporters behind them wanted to stage a political demonstration during the voting. They tried to deny the urgency of ending chaos in Hong Kong. But we want to say that the pro-democracy camp winning more seats doesn’t mean Hong Kong voters support violent demonstrations.

Adding:

All forces in Hong Kong, including the opposition, must compete for influence in the establishment. No one should follow the devious path of street politics.

The most significant aspect of the district council elections lies in the nomination powers the pro-democracy protestors will now acquire. The winner of the district council elections can nominate six people to the Legislative Council and 117 to the 1,200-member election committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive. Pro-Beijing loyalists’ domination of this committee will not disappear, but the opposition will be able to provide more than a little nuisance value to a process that Beijing has previously portrayed as an exercise in choice, albeit a carefully managed one.

Hong Kong’s problems are political and thus will eventually require a political solution. The election results offer Beijing an opportunity to make at least a gesture in the direction of political reform, as it did during the Umbrella protests in 2014 when it proposed to Hongkongers that they elect a leader directly from a list of candidates it had pre-approved. This, however, was rejected by the leaders of the Umbrella protests.

This time around, pro-democracy leaders may feel emboldened by the election results again not to need to make compromises on their five demands, which include universal suffrage. The later is unacceptable to the Party leadership, whose distrust of autonomy and distaste for the uncertainty of elections will now match its lack of confidence in Lam, although it has no credible alternative to her at present.

Lam says she will listen humbly to the Hong Kong public, but there is not much to hear that she has not already heard. In such unpromising conditions, Beijing may well feel it has no choice but to react with action not words, and crack down even harder than before.

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Protests Push Hong Kong Into Recession

THE ECONOMIC IMPACT of the protests in Hong Kong is proving more severe than expected.

The city’s economy contracted by 3.2% in the third quarter from the second, according to preliminary government data, far more than economists’ consensus forecasts. A Bloomberg survey had forecast to an 0.6% forecast. Following on the 0.4% in the second quarter, that meant Hong Kong was officially in recession.

Even without the protests, the U.S.-China trade dispute and its chilling effect on world trade growth would have cast a shadow over Hong Kong’s economy.

It is the closely connected retail and tourism sectors that have been hit worst. Neither sector can have much immediate hope for optimism.

The political situation seems at an impasse. The Financial Times recently ran a story suggesting that Beijing’s plan to break it was for Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to be replaced in March by an interim successor who would serve out the rest of her term.

Should Lam leave office early, she would be the third of four chief executives not to fulfil their term of office. Hardly an enviable track record for Beijing, in whose gift the post lies.

Finding a successor for the short or long term would be challenging. Who is there that is both sufficiently loyal to Beijing but sufficiently distanced from it to acceptable to those now on the streets in Hong Kong? The list would appear to be slightly less than one.

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Building A Solution In Hong Kong

Tai Yuen Estate in Tai Po, Hong Kong, June 2015. Photo credit: Exploringlife - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41005351AT THE HEART of the political standoff in Hong Kong lies the fact that the protesters will not end their demonstrations without concessions from the government while the government will not entertain concessions without an end to the demonstrations.

As the violence on the streets has escalated, both positions have hardened. Hence the possible significance of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s references in her disrupted speech to open the new session of the Legislative Council about building more housing in the city and making it more affordable.

To this Bystander’s ear, that sounded like an attempt to shift the underlying cause of the demonstrations from the political to the social and lay some sort of foundation for a dialogue.

Affordable housing was a concern before the protests started. Measures to tackle the high cost of housing now being advanced such as a vacancy tax were being discussed previously. However, beneath the strident line taken by state media on the mainland that Hong Kong is a purely internal matter for China that will brook no foreign interference, the argument that housing is a root cause of the protest is being advanced.

Whether that will cut any ice with the demonstrators, especially the most hard-line who want political reform including universal suffrage, is a different matter. But even for moderates, it may at this point be too little, too late.

Lam has hinted at a future willingness to consider constitutional revisions, although reportedly she told EU officials privately that even discussing extending the voting franchise was not ‘feasible’ now. Getting the approval of Beijing for any political concessions to the demonstrators would look to be a more difficult task than lowering Hong Kong’s sky-high property prices.

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