Asia Pacific / Politics

China reportedly plans to replace Carrie Lam with 'interim' Hong Kong leader

Bloomberg, Reuters

The Chinese government is drafting a plan to replace Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam with an “interim” chief executive, the Financial Times reported, citing unidentified people briefed on the deliberations.

Lam’s successor would be installed by March and serve the remainder of her term if Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to carry out the plan, the paper cited the people as saying.

Lam’s replacement wouldn’t necessarily stay on for a full five-year term afterward. Leading candidates to succeed Lam include Norman Chan, former head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and Henry Tang, who has also served as the territory’s financial secretary and chief secretary for administration, the report added.

Chan did not immediately responded to requests for comment on Wednesday. A spokesman for the Chief Executive’s Office said the office does not comment on speculation.

A spokesman said Tang did not comment on speculation and that he supported Lam as chief executive.

A senior official in Beijing said the FT story was wrong and none of the suggested candidates listed in the story could possibly take over from Lam based on the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s miniconstitution which came into force in 1997.

But Beijing had prepared all kinds of contingency plans for different scenarios in Hong Kong, including Lam’s administration losing total control of the situation, the official said.

China’s foreign ministry said the FT report was political rumor with ulterior motives.

“Business should not expect that the removal of Lam will end the civil unrest,” Verisk Maplecroft, a consultancy that advises businesses on political risk, said in a note on Wednesday. “No matter who the next chief executive is, the protesters will continue to demand an independent investigation into police conduct amid widespread dissatisfaction with how the authorities are managing the demonstrations.”

Lam’s introduction of legislation allowing extraditions to China sparked months of increasingly violent protests against Beijing’s tightening grip over the city, pushing the economy toward a recession. Her moves to withdraw the bill and invoke a colonial-era emergency law to ban face masks have done little to stem the unrest.

According to audio excerpts released by Reuters last month, Lam told a gathering of businesspeople that she had caused “huge havoc” and would quit “if I had a choice.” She subsequently told reporters that she never asked China for permission to resign over the historic unrest rocking the city.

If Lam resigns, responsibility for leading the city of 7.5 million would fall immediately to Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung, who can act as chief executive for as long as six months. Before that interim period ends, the city’s 1,200-member Election Committee — comprised overwhelmingly of Beijing loyalists — must meet to select a new leader.

In 2005, Hong Kong’s first postcolonial leader, Tung Chee-hwa, resigned after mass protests forced him to withdraw China-backed national security legislation. Tung, a shipping magnate, held on to the job for more than a year after the demonstrations peaked as the party settled on a succession plan.

Opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo said last week that Lam’s resignation could help ease tensions. “She can go, if she wants to,” Mo said in an interview. “You might say: ‘What’s the point of having Carrie Lam gone? There would just be another puppet in place.’ But at least we can have a new face, and let’s have a restart, if possible, between the government and the people.”

In her annual policy address last week, Lam tried to ease the economic concerns of poorer Hong Kong citizens with incentives for first-time home buyers and annual grants for students. Still, she didn’t make any new proposals and repeated her opposition to the protesters’ demands, including granting amnesty, an independent police inquiry and the ability to nominate and elect their own leaders.

“Heads need to roll” in order to show the administration is accountable but Lam’s removal would also carry risks for the Communist Party in Beijing, said David Zweig, an emeritus professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Transnational China Consulting Ltd.

“How many cities in China may have bad situations, unemployment or difficulties —particularly going forward if the U.S.-China trade war continues, China’s economy slows down and people march?” he said. “Are they going to remove mayors? Are they going to remove officials?”