In what appeared to be an ad hoc move, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam was summoned to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday night to be briefed on the latest developments in the former British territory.
The meeting comes at a time when Hong Kong continues to hurtle from one weekend of tear gas and chaos to another – since June, when a now-retracted extradition law amendment ignited social unrest.
Both Xi and Lam were in Shanghai to attend the second China International Import Expo, however, there had been no reports of a scheduled meeting between the two until Xinhua ran a story at midnight.
“The central authorities maintain unwavering trust in you and highly regard your and your team’s work,” Xinhua quoted Xi as saying. He also acknowledged Lam’s perseverance and her strenuous efforts to get to grips with the situation and improve the situation throughout the past five tumultuous months.
While heaping praise on Lam, Xi also issued a rallying call to all sectors in the city to end the protracted turmoil and restore order as the top priority, and that quashing the riots and bringing the scoundrels and instigators to justice would be the only means to safeguard the interests of all Hongkongers.
Xi prodded Lam to further engage the public and address people’s livelihood woes, without mentioning Lam’s perceived maladministration and her failure to feel and grasp people’s sentiments, especially at the outset of the protests.
Also present at the late night meeting in Shanghai were foreign minister Wang Yi and public security minister Zhao Kezhi, who had just been appointed to Beijing’s top taskforce on Hong Kong affairs.
It was the first time Xi had commented in public on the pandemonium facing Hong Kong and his ringing endorsement of Lam was seen as a bid to dismiss the rumor that Lam’s days in office were numbered.
The Financial Times claimed at the end of October that Beijing had already drafted a plan to let the embattled Lam go and install “an interim Hong Kong chief” as soon as March, who would serve out the remainder of Lam’s term until June 2022.
Citing sources briefed on the deliberations, the broadsheet also suggested that leading candidates included former chief of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority Norman Chan and former Chief Secretary Henry Tang.
Reuters also published a leaked audio clip of Lam telling business leaders in a closed-door meeting in early September that she would have already quit if she could, “having caused such havoc,” one day before Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill in a humiliating climbdown.
The bill sought to enable the surrender of fugitives to all jurisdictions which the city did not have a formal rendition deal with, including mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.
Xi’s words to prop up the deeply unpopular Lam have caused fresh worries in Hong Kong’s pan-democratic bloc. Lawmaker Tanya Chan told reporters that Lam may harden her stance and deploy more aggressive tactics to clamp down on protesters, which could never dissolve the tension.
Yet not everyone entertains the belief that Lam’s job is safe, citing the precedent of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first post-colonial era leader, who was also given a thumbs-up by Beijing in 2003 even though SARS broke out and the bid to enact a national security clause failed under Tung’s watch.
He abruptly resigned in early 2005 citing health issues, two years before the end of his second tenure.
Still, with next year’s Legislative Council election approaching, there is some doubt that Beijing has the resources to hold a by-election to select a new leader to replace Lam. But heads may roll in Lam’s team as some secretaries and top advisors can be asked to leave.
Lam is due to head for Beijing on Wednesday to meet Deputy Premier Han Zheng, head of the Communist Party’s taskforce on Hong Kong.
Separately, Hong Kong papers reported on Tuesday that the government had been mulling pardoning some of those convicted for offenses committed during the protests on a case-by-case basis as a gesture of reconciliation, with the prerequisite of finishing all related prosecution procedures and ensuring judicial independence.