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Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to attend Emperor Naruhito's enthronement ceremony, though 70,000 back petition against visit

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam will be one of approximately 400 foreign VIPs to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony in Tokyo on Tuesday, in a visit that could prompt criticism of Japan amid ongoing pro-democracy protests and a harsh crackdown by Beijing in the Chinese city.

Lam was set to leave Monday for Tokyo to attend the enthronement ceremonies and will return Tuesday evening, the Hong Kong government said in a statement. It was not immediately clear if Lam had been on the initial guest list, which includes Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, who will represent his country, or if Lam will be part of Wang’s delegation.

Reaction was immediate Sunday, with a Change.org petition urging authorities to revoke Lam’s invitation backed by more than 70,000 people as of Tuesday morning.

A letter accompanying the petition signed by Hong Kong residents of Japan and other “supporters” of the city said the invitation would stoke a backlash.

“The situation runs contrary to the brilliant beginnings of the Reiwa Era, and negative press by international media could cause a stir,” the letter said. “We strongly urge you to revoke Carry Lam’s permission to attend.”

Japan has seen a number of relatively small demonstrations in support of Hong Kong protesters in recent weeks, made up mainly of Hong Kongers in their 20s and a speckling of Japanese.

One organizer of those protests, Suzuko Hirano, 25, said that while there would be no demonstration on Tuesday, the visit by Lam would be a blemish on what was otherwise expected to be “a day of pride.”

“I’m not going to cause a stir or hold a demonstration,” Hirano said. “But I don’t want Carrie Lam to meet the emperor and empress. I don’t think she has the qualifications to meet them.”

A meeting with the emperor was considered unlikely for Lam, who is expected only to attend the ceremonies.

On Monday — after two weeks of relative calm in the monthslong political crisis — Hong Kong was recovering from a night of violence that saw tens of thousands take to the streets. More protests were planned for later Monday.

The large turnout a day earlier reflected strong support for the anti-government movement, despite authorities branding the march illegal, apparently on the basis of public safety concerns.

Local authorities, under the leadership of Lam and with the explicit backing of Beijing, have responded to the protests with increasingly harsh steps — from employing batons and firing lethal shots at protesters to jailing them on rioting charges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned against dissent, saying any attempt to divide China will end in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder,” state-run media reported last week. Xi did not mention any particular region, but the warning was widely seen as directed at Hong Kong.

Tokyo has refrained from taking a strong position on Beijing’s response during the more than four months of protests despite an international outcry, including legislation passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives that would require annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special economic and trade status by the U.S. secretary of state.

In June, during a bilateral meeting a day before the Osaka Group of 20 summit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Xi to maintain the “one country, two systems” philosophy with Hong Kong.

This, along with brief statements by then-Foreign Minister Taro Kono at news conferences and a tweet in which he said he was “heartbroken” for those injured in the protests, were the strongest responses thus far by Tokyo amid warming ties with Beijing.

Relations had soured in the early part of this decade over sovereignty and historical issues, but Xi is due to make his first state visit to Japan next spring.

Economic considerations are also believed to have played a role in Tokyo’s relative silence on the Hong Kong protests. Japan has traditionally kept a low profile on rights issues involving Beijing, and observers say it has actively worked to separate its political and economic relationship with the mainland.

But Tokyo also has robust trade ties with Hong Kong. Japan is the city’s third-largest trading partner after mainland China and the U.S., and Hong Kong is Japan’s eighth-largest trading partner, according to the Japanese government.

Still, the visit by Lam — while potentially exposing the Japanese government to criticism considering its relatively kid-gloves approach to the protests — could also shine a spotlight on the demonstrations.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations and politics at International Christian University in Tokyo, said the vast majority of protesters in Hong Kong “are peaceful and are focused on the five demands.”

These demands are that the protests not to be characterized as “riots,” that there be an amnesty for those arrested and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, as well as the implementation of complete universal suffrage. The fifth demand, the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill that spurred the initial protests, has already been met.

“Only a handful argue for independence,” Nagy said. “With that in mind, I think peaceful protesters will be disenfranchised by Lam representing Hong Kong but feel that it’s important for Hong Kong to have a seat at the enthronement ceremony to keep [the issue] front and center as conditions continue to erode.”

Tuesday’s ceremonies will see a number of prominent faces in attendance, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, the U.K.’s Prince Charles, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

South Korea, meanwhile, plans to send Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon rather than President Moon Jae-in amid sharply deteriorating ties between the two countries over wartime history and trade policy.

According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Abe briefly met with Myanmar’s Suu Kyi on Monday ahead of the ceremonies in Tokyo, urging Myanmar and its military to “quickly take appropriate actions” to address “suspected human right violations” in the country’s Rakhine state.

Abe was alluding to the refugee crisis that has seen scores of Rohingya Muslims flee the state. The prime minister also stressed the importance of “preparing an environment” where refugees can return to Rakhine from neighboring Bangladesh, a ministry press statement said.

In response, Suu Kyi was quoted as saying that Myanmar will “take proper actions” and “will not hesitate to take necessary measures.”

The same day, Abe was set to meet 23 world leaders who are visiting for Tuesday’s ceremonies.

The Sokui no Rei (ceremony of accession), is one of the biggest events pertaining to Emperor Naruhito’s ascension to the chrysanthemum throne. Representatives from over 190 countries and organizations around the globe are expected to attend, as well as members of the government.

The ceremony will see guests in attendance witnessing Emperor Naruhito’s declaration of his official enthronement.

Staff writer Reiji Yoshida contributed to this report