After the Financial Times ran a story about Beijing’s plans to replace Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry vehemently denied the report, calling it “a political rumor.”
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has refused to publicly comment on the topic, leading many Hongkongers to believe Beijing is indeed planning to let go of Lam.
“It’s well-known that the Chinese Communist Party discards people after it uses them,” Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Kwok Ka Ki said in a Facebook post. “I believe Carrie Lam knows this day will come.”
Beijing vets the political candidates for Hong Kong’s top official position, after which an electoral committee comprised of mostly pro-Beijing elites vote.
The Financial Times (FT) reported on Oct. 23 that Beijing plans to replace Lam in March 2020 with an “interim” official, who will take over until the next election is held in 2022.
Citing anonymous insiders, FT said the potential replacement candidates are Norman Chan, head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority from 2009 to 2019; and Henry Tang, chief secretary (a second-in-command position) from 2007 to 2011 and financial secretary from 2003 to 2007.
Both Chan and Tang are pro-Beijing.
Lam faces mounting political pressure after she tried and failed to push a controversial extradition bill, which ignited the biggest protests in the city’s history.
The bill, since shelved, would have allowed any country, including mainland China, to seek extradition of criminal suspects, which Hongkongers feared would allow the Chinese regime to punish its critics with impunity.
Meanwhile, protesters continue to demonstrate, calling for an independent investigation into police use of force during demonstrations; universal suffrage; and for all arrested protesters to be exonerated.
In July, several local media outlets reported that Lam sought to tender her resignation with Beijing. Then in September, Reuters published a leaked audio recording of a business meeting in which Lam said: “If I have a choice…the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”
At the time, she denied having tendered any resignation.
On Oct. 23, Hua Chunying, the spokeswoman of China’s foreign affairs ministry, answered a reporter’s question about the FT report.
“This is a political rumor with ulterior motives,” Hua said at a regular press briefing. “The central government will firmly support Lam and her government’s efforts to stop the riots and restore order.”
However, on the foreign ministry’s official website, where it typically keeps a published record of the press briefing, Hua’s comments on Lam were not included. But reporters at the presser posted videos of Hua’s comments online.
The English edition of the Chinese state-run media Global Times reported Hua’s answer in a one-sentence article.
Hong Kong media contacted the Chief Executive’s office for a comment. It responded: “We don’t comment on speculative reports.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo posted on Facebook that she asked the office whether the FT report was “groundless” speculation. She received this reply: “[The report is] absolutely groundless.”
Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing legislator, told Bloomberg on Oct. 23 that he believed the report was true: “Dragging this thing [replacing Lam] out is actually bad for everyone, for Hong Kong, the police. So now they [Beijing] need to sort of take action. And I have heard it’s going to be next year, probably February or March.”
Prior to the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, the two sides drafted a mini-constitution, the Basic Law, in which the Chinese regime promised it would allow Hong Kong to hold democratic elections sometime in the future.
However, Beijing has since ruled out the possibility of universal suffrage, only allowing elections in which candidates are first vetted.
In 2005, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned amid his second term in office, after Hongkongers staged several large-scale protests against a Basic Law amendment that many believed would restrict civil liberties. Beijing then named the city’s most senior bureaucrat Donald Tsang to be Tung’s replacement. Afterwards, Tsang also sat in office for a full five-year term starting in 2007.
Chung Kim-wah, social science professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Oct. 23 that Hong Kong’s current situation is different when Tung resigned.
“It’s easy to replace Tung… because back then, the election committee had very few pro-democracy members. Now the pro-democracy members of the election committee can nominate a candidate, and Beijing can’t fully control [the committee],” Chung said.
Chung believed it was possible that Beijing will name a replacement for Lam directly, just as in the previous case with Tung.