Why Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam did not meet Xi Jinping privately at Apec summit

Unlike in previous years, Lam did not get a sit-down with the president at the Vietnam gathering, as Beijing seeks to normalise how the city leader reports to the national government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 November, 2017, 9:33pm

It used to be normal practice for the Chinese president to meet Hong Kong’s chief executive on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit, but this no longer seems to be the case.

And though one does not have to read too much into the change, there is a subtle but clear message.

Unlike her predecessors’ experience, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor attended the summit in Vietnam this week, it turned out there was no separate meeting with President Xi Jinping arranged for her. She was, however, among the group of Chinese officials who greeted Xi when he landed at the airport, and the two met briefly during the group photo session and a few other times.

Last November, at an Apec summit in Peru, Xi met then chief executive Leung Chun-ying for 45 minutes. He fully acknowledged Leung’s work and urged him to resolutely safeguard national interests and maintain stability in Hong Kong.

That set the whole town guessing whether Leung would seek a second term, but he later asked the public not to speculate too much by linking the meeting with his future plans. Xi met Leung the year

before in Manila too, to get the pulse of Hong Kong not long after the Legislative Council blocked the city’s political reform package.

Carrie Lam affirms Hong Kong’s commitment to free trade at her first Apec summit

The other two former leaders of the city, Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, also met former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao while attending Apec.

Over the years, these meetings have come to signal support from the top leadership for the city and its leader. But apparently Beijing has decided there are other ways to achieve that purpose, instead of using an international venue where geopolitical issues are supposed to be handled.

Hong Kong, after all, is considered an internal affair, although the city joins a number of international

organisations, including Apec, as an independent economic entity under “one country, two systems”.

And, understandably, Xi is just too busy at international events. At this year’s gathering, in the port city of Da Nang, he had a packed schedule: delivering his keynote speech outlining China’s vision of its own and the region’s development; many meetings with major leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on the North Korean problem; and his state visit to Apec host Vietnam, a country in a love-hate relationship with China for historical reasons, but with both sides aware of the need to maintain smooth ties.

It was also a significant moment for Xi, who, after the recently closed 19th Communist Party Congress, has ascended to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He was showing his confidence on the world stage, and that he was more than capable of dealing with complicated Sino-US relations by building a personal rapport with the unpredictable Donald Trump, in addition to handling China’s role in the region.

In terms of Chinese political protocol, the annual duty visit of the chief executive to Beijing should be the most appropriate occasion for Lam to report to Xi on Hong Kong’s latest.

So there’s no need to guess whether Beijing is giving Hong Kong more or less importance. It’s simply “normalising” the reporting mechanism between the city’s leader and the country’s top leadership by making the annual December visit the official one.

Such a change of rule actually started two years ago when Beijing decided the chief executive should sit on one side of the table from his mainland counterparts, while Xi sat at the head.