In Depth

Would a new leader in Hong Kong change anything?

Reports that Carrie Lam may be replaced by her overlords in Beijing have prompted denials

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reportedly considering replacing Hong Kong’s beleaguered chief executive Carrie Lam with an “interim” candidate.

The report, carried exclusively by the Financial Times, says the decision is pending approval by President Xi Jinping, and is in response to the pro-democracy protests that have roiled the city for months. The newspaper says the new chief executive would be installed in March for the rest of Lam’s term, which ends in 2022.

An opinion poll commissioned earlier this month by Ming Pao, a Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspaper, found that 73% of the city’s residents agreed that Lam should resign. However, protesters are adamant that they will not stop until the territory's executive and legislature are chosen through elections with universal suffrage - demands that Beijing are strongly against.

According to the FT, “Chinese officials want the situation to stabilise before making a final decision on whether to proceed with a leadership change, as they don’t want to be seen to be giving in to violence, according to the people briefed on the discussions. Officials are hoping the violence will subside as arrests mount and now weekly vandalisation dissipates public support for the protests.”

On Wednesday, in a significant concession to the protesters, Hong Kong’s legislature formally withdrew the controversial extradition treaty that would have allowed criminal suspects to stand trial in courts controlled by the central Chinese government.

It was this draft legislation that was the initial catalyst for the protests, but the move to withdraw it had been promised since early September without reducing any of the protesters’ fervor and, as such, its excision yesterday is unlikely to bring an end to the demonstrations.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the FT report during its daily briefing yesterday, calling it a “political rumour (being spread with) ulterior motives”.

It added that the central government would “firmly support and assist the chief executive and the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government in governing Hong Kong in accordance with law, and in stopping violence and chaos as soon as possible”.

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It is unlikely, however, that Beijing would officially acknowledge any plans to remove Lam from office, as it would go against the law set out in the semi-independent territory’s quasi constitution, the Hong Kong Basic Law.

As Foreign Policy magazine points out: “Hong Kong’s leader is nominally picked by the Election Committee, a 1,200-member group of the business and political elite. If China overrules the committee entirely, it would make the facade of ‘one country, two systems’ wear even thinner.”

In other words, while Lam’s leaving office is one of the five key demands of the protesters - as was the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill - if it is seen as a political incursion by the CCP, it is likely only to inflame protesters’ concerns over their lack of independence.

In addition, campaigners still have a list of demands that, they insist, must be acceded to before they back down. “We need to fix Hong Kong’s systemic problems: namely the undemocratic system and the police force being out of control with no checks and balances,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

The removal of Lam may not be enough to end the crisis, he said, but he added that he was hopeful a new chief executive might adopt a new strategy. “That may be a new start,” he said.

“Beijing doesn't understand the Hong Kong people and what we want. The voices of the Hong Kong people are very clear: five demands, not one less,” said Bonnie Leung, a pro-democracy campaigner. “These five demands are really about rebuilding a system that can protect us from further mayhem.

Last night, protesters gathered at the British consulate in Hong Kong to mark a debate to be held later today in Westminster over whether to offer British citizenship to Hong Kongers in light of the city’s current troubles.

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