Carrie Lam

Not just a courtesy call: what gifts and guidance can Carrie Lam expect from her first duty visit to Beijing?

The Hong Kong chief executive’s interactions with Beijing this week will be closely watched, for indications of how it views her leadership and developments in the city

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 10:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 9:48pm

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will travel to Beijing from Wednesday to Friday for her maiden duty visit.

Lam, who took office on July 1, will meet President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and other state leaders to update them on developments in Hong Kong and the performance of her Cabinet.

She will also sign an agreement with the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, which will outline Hong Kong’s role in President Xi’s “belt and road” global trade strategy.

While these meetings in the capital are an annual fixture on the chief executive’s political calendar, given that this is Lam’s maiden visit, politicians and pundits alike will focus closely on what is said at the meetings and who else she meets.

Here’s why:

1. An indication of what Beijing wants and what it can give

For several years after Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, duty visits were a time for state leaders to show their support, with them customarily reinforcing the principles of “one country, two systems”.

But in recent years, the tone of these reinforcements has taken on more gravity.

Two years ago, when former chief executive Leung Chun-ying visited Beijing, President Xi noted the “new circumstances” that had arisen regarding the “one country, two systems” model of governance, under which Hong Kong gets a high degree of autonomy.

While Xi promised the central government would be steadfast and unshaken in its commitment to the policy, he stressed it would “make sure its implementation does not get distorted”.

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A year earlier, during Leung’s duty visit in December 2014 after 79 days of pro-democracy street protests known as the Occupy movement ended relatively peacefully, Xi heaped praise on Leung for maintaining stability in the city and said Beijing would give him “unwavering support”.

Xi also made clear that Hong Kong should stick to the stringent framework for political reform set by Beijing.

State leaders have also used the visits to set other requirements and priorities for the city’s leader both in terms of governance and its cooperation with the mainland.

In 2012, Premier Wen Jiabao urged Leung to address problems in six areas including housing, poverty and the city’s ageing population.

Those areas were adopted by the chief executive as his top policy priorities in his five-year term.

On Saturday, Lam’s office said she would be bringing home new tasks handed down by the National Development and Reform Commission after signing the agreement to advance the city’s “full participation in and contribution to” the Belt and Road Initiative.

Political watchers will also be looking out for any other goodies she can bring back from the meeting. Last year, Li, in his meeting with Leung, promised to roll out favourable initiatives for the city as part of China’s 13th five-year plan.

2. A report card of sorts

Then president Hu Jintao used the December 2004 meeting with former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to deliver shockingly strong remarks.

He called on Tung and his team to buck up, adding that they should “summarise [their] experience and identify inadequacies, and constantly raise the standard of administration and improve governance.”

In March 2005, Tung tendered his resignation as chief executive, citing health reasons. But it was widely believed that he stepped down because the central government was dissatisfied with his performance.

Last year, both Xi and Li praised Leung, with Li lauding him for being “proactive and pragmatic”, saying that the Hong Kong’s economy was still in strong shape amid global instability.

While this public endorsement added to speculation that Leung would run for a second term, he eventually did not, though after stepping down, he was elevated to vice-chairman of China’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

What is said about Lam will reveal what Beijing’s most senior leadership thinks of her rule so far.

3. An opportunity to make clear who’s boss

During the duty visits from 1997 to 2014, Hong Kong’s chief executive sat side-by-side with state leaders on identical grand chairs with an ornate table between them, giving the impression of equal footing and much like the arrangement for overseas leaders visiting Beijing.

But in December 2015, an unprecedented seating change made it clearer than ever that “one country” came before “two systems”.

Smaller side seat for Leung Chun-ying sparks debate on Hong Kong Chief Executive’s footing with Xi Jinping

In separate meetings with Leung, Xi and Li sat at the head of a long conference table, with the chief executive perched on a smaller seat down the table to the right of the host leader.

At that time, a spokesman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the arrangement better reflected the constitutional requirement for the chief executive to be accountable to the central authorities.

China-watchers added that apart from the obvious message of who was in charge, it showed the meeting was not a courtesy call but to “discuss business”.

4. Not just about top government officials

Hong Kong chief executives have in recent years had separate meetings with the President, the Premier, the state leader overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs, as well as heads of major authorities, such as the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the National Development and Reform Commission, during their short visit.

For Lam’s visit, all eyes will be on whether she would get a one-on-one meeting with Li Zhanshu, who was in October appointed the Communist Party’s No 3 official.

Formerly Xi’s top aide, Li Zhanshu’s job for the past five years has come with the biggest say on Hong Kong affairs, second only to Xi. He is expected to succeed Zhang Dejiang as head of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, next March at China’s annual “two sessions” or “lianghui”.

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5. This year’s visit comes at a particular sensitive time.

As Hong Kong society becomes more politically polarised, with a rise in calls for self-determination and the vilification of localists by pro-establishment supporters, Beijing has not minced its words in its comments on the city.

Last month, it signalled its impatience at Hong Kong for making no progress in enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law, which obliges Hong Kong to draft laws against treason, sedition and subversion.

Li Fei, who heads the Basic Law Committee under the NPC’s Standing Committee, said that this was an “unavoidable” duty.

While Lam said on Tuesday that such legislation could only be enacted when “there is an atmosphere for rational discussion in society”, this would not preclude Xi from renewing Beijing’s call for China’s sovereignty, security and development interests to be upheld.

6. It is a rare meeting

Apart from the annual visits, the heads of Beijing and Hong Kong’s governments are not likely to have any other one-on-one meetings during the year. The city’s leader used to have a separate meeting with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, but this did not happen this year.

Commentators believe that the new arrangement showed that Beijing has decided not to use an international venue for meetings, given that those are meant for addressing geopolitical issues.

7. It was also done during the colonial days.

Before 1997, British colonial governors normally made at least two working or duty visits to London each year to brief the Foreign Office, and sometimes the Prime Minister, and keep up to date with or discuss the implementation of British policy on Hong Kong.

A mainland official once told the Post anonymously that Beijing always watched Hong Kong’s last colonial governor Chris Patten closely every time he returned to London for a duty visit, because these were always followed by new “offensives” by him on issues relating to the city’s return to China.