From Asia’s World City to China’s running boy – Beijing and Carrie Lam carve out new role for Hong Kong

Leader and her top officials have visited a dizzying array of foreign capitals and mainland provincial governments since taking office – a sign China sees value in deploying her and the city’s soft-power appeal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 December, 2017, 9:16pm

It seems to me that since Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was installed as Hong Kong leader, and for that matter in the months before, we have witnessed a bold and not exactly unsurprising redefinition of the city’s role in the world.

All the available evidence points to a clear shift from the overblown, nebulous and conceited claim to be Asia’s “World City” to a much more grounded and realistic role as the world city of China.

In the spirit of understatement which embodies the way Beijing goes about its business, this change has not be trumpeted by overpaid and undereducated purveyors of branding who came up with the hollow “World City” wheeze.

Instead, in the spirit of a country used to the one-sided benefits of totalitarian rule, which allows ruthless economic and political planning, this shift in the role of Hong Kong is based on actual work on the ground, a heady mix of glad-handing and arm twisting, and as little trumpeting as possible.

Here is the evidence for my contention.

If a forensic accounting were to be performed on the movements of Lam and her team of top officials in the weeks and months in the run-up to her coronation as chief executive of Hong Kong and in the period since, I suspect we would find that they have spent a significant amount more time living out of suitcases than almost any previous administration in recent living memory.

Certainly much, much more time than the last crop of bureaucrats led by – let’s face it – the less than gregarious Leung Chun-ying.

Beijing to set out Hong Kong’s role in China’s global trade strategy during Carrie Lam visit

While possibly a decent example of horses for courses, there can be no doubt that as China and Hong Kong mature (substitute verb according to your political persuasion) into their respective roles in a world undergoing epoch-making change, employing the soft-power appeal of an apparently strong woman with an ability to engage while toeing the party line seems to be a no-brainer.

It also creates, as those in power are fond of saying by way of justifying just about anything, a win-win situation for those at the helm of both Beijing and Hong Kong.

As well as being super busy with the tricky business of sculpting his position as head of Communist Party central, knitting a huge and diverse nation together while continuing to bestride the world stage with new purpose and vigour, President Xi Jinping and his senior officials need all the help they can get.

And who better to act as a sugar-coated, controllable emissary of the embryonic deal than the leader of a city which – on the face of it – has in place the structures, experience and connections required thanks to its historical role as a running boy for the long-since, once-all-conquering British empire?

Not only does it give her something to do and give the real power brokers in Beijing a distance – and crucial deniability room – if a situation goes pear-shaped, it also allows Hong Kong to retain at least the semblance of being a place with global significance, while maintaining its role as an international financial and diplomatic hub.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam talks up Saudi Arabia as trade partner in ‘Belt and Road’ push

Equally importantly, the hope could be that it will help herald a new – if intangible – feel-good factor for a significantly restless native population who feel increasingly disenfranchised from an emasculated and dysfunctional political system.

Since she was anointed and installed as chief executive, Lam and a host of her top officials have visited Beijing and a dizzying array of provincial governments on the mainland, almost on a weekly basis.

Over the same period Lam herself has been on official visits to Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Britain.

All this, the official line goes, is to help cement Hong Kong as a key player in the international “Belt and Road Initiative” team. It also has a lot to do with forging a new Hong Kong at home.