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Chief executive’s policy address 2017

Independence issue presents challenge for Carrie Lam in maiden policy address

Analysts say Hong Kong’s leader must walk a tightrope between the toeing the party line and not alienating the opposition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 5:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 11:12pm

Hong Kong’s leader faces a potential political minefield in her first policy speech on Wednesday as the issue of independence will need to be addressed, analysts have said.

While government spin doctors have tried to steer media attention towards Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s “hope and happiness” initiatives that target social and economic issues, some political watchers are keeping an eye on how the chief executive will deal with Hong Kong-mainland relations.

Lam’s maiden address in front of legislators comes at a politically charged time, especially at the city’s university campuses. A powder keg of emotions erupted after pro-independence banners and posters appeared on at least six campuses since the start of the academic year, igniting the so-called “poster wars” between local and mainland students.

Some of that anger was also seen on National Day, when thousands of people took to the streets in Causeway Bay to protest against what they considered “authoritarian rule” in the city.

Linda Li Che-lan, a professor at City University of Hong Kong and a member of the moderate pro-democracy think tank Future at Hong Kong, said President Xi Jinping put pressure on Lam to toe the party line during his visit in July.

“The president has drawn a red line. Lam must show she has not forgotten what president Xi has said,” said Li.

She was referring to the speech Xi made at Lam’s inauguration, stressing the need to uphold national sovereignty and promote the correct understanding of “one country, two systems”. Xi also warned against attempts to challenge the central government’s authority, saying that would cross “a red line and is absolutely impermissible”.

Lam has little leeway when it comes to the official stance on independence, but few analysts expect her to follow the example set by predecessor Leung Chun-ying, whose over the top criticism of the pro-independence camp drew public ire. In his 2015 policy address, Leung delivered a stark warning against the advocacy of “self-determination”, slamming students for “advocating independence” in the University of Hong Kong Student Union magazine Undergrad.

Some observers have said Leung’s salvo against the student publication backfired and fuelled separatist activism.

“It will be a very delicate fine line,” said City University political scientist James Sung Lap-kung. “Carrie Lam will have to voice just enough support for Beijing’s anti-independence stance, but not go so far as to lose credibility for defending Hong Kong’s core values and autonomy.”

Despite the need to adhere to Beijing’s wishes, he said, Lam must consider the interests of the opposition if she wants to improve relations between the executive and legislative branches.

“If it is handled improperly, Lam could end up offending both Beijing and Hongkongers.”

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Sung said he expected Lam to reiterate the government’s stance that there was no room for discussion on Hong Kong independence because it breached the “one country, two systems” policy on which Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are built.

Lam is also expected to stress how Hong Kong, as part of China, had benefited from the national reform and progress in the past decades.

Besides announcing a new initiative to boost the city’s innovation and technology sector in her maiden policy address, Lam has spent the past three months urging the city to take advantage of opportunities brought by the country’s “belt and road” initiative and the Greater Bay Area development.

Lam’s pledge to ask Beijing’s liaison office to stay out of the city’s politics coincided roughly with a planned personnel reshuffle last month, with the former head of the Macau liaison office Wang Zhimin replacing Zhang Xiaoming, who was known for his tough stance against critics and considered a hardliner by the pan-democrats.

While this gives Lam a chance to reset relations with the office, it remains to be seen whether she will demarcate the lines of responsibility of mainland officials in the city clearly and unequivocally.

A senior government source said it would be unlikely for Lam to float controversial topics such as launching political reforms, as pan-democrats had asked for, or enacting a national security law, as the leading pro-establishment party Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong had proposed.

Raymond Mak Ka-chun, a leader of the centrist political group Path of Democracy, said that since the election, Lam had positioned herself as someone who preferred to get into the nuts and bolts of policymaking, rather than playing politics.

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Lam, a career civil servant, has not been successful in handling complicated political issues, Mak said, citing the failed political reform drive she led in 2013 and 2014, when she was the Chief Secretary of the Leung government.

According to analysts, Lam would have little choice but to rely on her political acumen during the address and hope she can lower the political temperature to focus on issues such as tax reforms, funding for education and elderly services, and fixing the city’s housing shortage.

“The last thing she wants is to add fuel to the fire,” Sung said.

With additional reporting by Jeffie Lam