Following Carrie Lam’s announcement that she will not be running for re-election as Hong Kong chief executive, former police officer and recently resigned chief secretary for administration John Lee is officially running and likely to become the next chief executive. As the only candidate, does that mean Lee will win the election by default? (NB: According to Hong Kong media reports, Beijing wants Lee to be the only candidate, and will not give the green light to others to stand against him.)
China’s expectations for the next leader
On 7 March, Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng — currently a Politburo Standing Committee member and head of the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs — listed three expectations for Hong Kong’s next chief executive: integrate Hong Kong with China’s development plans, solve the special administrative region’s housing shortage, and maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre.
Integrating with China’s development plans is an abstract expectation while solving the housing shortage is a long-term goal; maintaining Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre is the only real and urgent issue listed.
Amid the war in Ukraine, China’s firm support for Russia has angered the EU, and the US has warned that it could sanction China any time. Meanwhile, the US midterm elections are approaching and the Russia-Ukraine war shows no sign of ending.
Hong Kong runs an offshore RMB market whereby the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged to the US dollar, is freely convertible into other currencies. In this era of the new Cold War, this could only mean that Hong Kong’s role as a centre for money laundering and hot money flow is well within the US’s strategic field of vision.
If foreigners in Hong Kong feel that Carrie Lam’s anti-epidemic policy is moronic and illogical, they should compare it with the situation in Shanghai, the free trade zone that is said to be able to take Hong Kong’s place.
For years, the Chinese and some from the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong have been praising Shanghai as a free trade port, and have claimed that Shanghai could overtake and even replace Hong Kong. But Shanghai’s dynamic-zero lockdowns have stunned the foreigners living in the city. In response to reported incidents in Shanghai where medical and security personnel forcibly quarantine Covid-positive children apart from their parents, a number of European diplomatic missions in China, led by France, have written to the Chinese government to voice their concerns and seek assurances that children will not be separated from their parents for quarantines.
If foreigners in Hong Kong feel that Carrie Lam’s anti-epidemic policy is follish and illogical, they should compare it with the situation in Shanghai, the free trade zone that is said to be able to take Hong Kong’s place. Like new shop window displays to the outside world, the dynamic-zero policy in Shanghai and Hong Kong has exposed fresh concerns in the investment environment for Western investors and the international community.
The US is dissatisfied with China’s response to the Ukraine issue and the US president has said that it is ready to impose sanctions on China. The Hong Kong of British colonial times would have been able to mediate between the mainland and the US, just as then Hong Kong governor Alexander Grantham did during the Korean War. Amid pressure of US sanctions, as well as diplomatic pressure from then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, warning that Hong Kong was not to be used as a means to contain China, Grantham showed a flair for balancing the two. He also deftly managed the poverty crisis due to an influx of refugees to Hong Kong. Only such a Hong Kong will be useful to the Chinese Communist Party; and only such a governor will be seen as a true leader.
The “emperor” is anxious for Hong Kong, a centre for hot money, to face the world and be prepared to handle an economic crisis if China becomes more closed off.
Maintaining status as financial hub
Han Zheng, a Shanghainese whose career has been mainly based in Shanghai, has more experience with foreign capital and a more cosmopolitan view of Hong Kong. His comment on maintaining Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre is a hint that Hong Kong’s confidence and values have already taken a hit — but from whom? Not from the US and Western investors of course, but from within itself.
Of the three expectations raised by Han, maintaining Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre is the most urgent. However, a former chief executive who has been very enthusiastic about returning to the Government House has shown a different perspective and attitude by repeatedly saying that the priority for the Hong Kong government is to improve its domestic relations; that is, to strengthen Hong Kong's political and economic dependency with mainland China.
Both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Han Zheng have emphasised the importance of maintaining Hong Kong’s financial centre status without mentioning improving domestic relations. The “emperor” is anxious for Hong Kong, a centre for hot money, to face the world and be prepared to handle an economic crisis if China becomes more closed off.
The senior officials in the Hong Kong government have no direction and no antennae. Those below are trying to get a read of those above, but their interpretations are not really what Li and Han have in mind after all. However, even Li and Han are not exactly the “emperor”, and this is where Hong Kong's integration into mainland China's politics becomes so complex and confusing.
Nothing is predictable, but one thing is certain: it is impossible for a gun-toting official born of the public security system who remains on the US sanctions list to be an all-round talent in the overall management of a government.
Hong Kong needs an all-round leader
In this new political framework of the “imperial” struggle, no chief executive would be able to help Hong Kong out of the difficulties that China and Hong Kong themselves have created over the past three years. Nothing is predictable, but one thing is certain: it is impossible for a gun-toting official born of the public security system who remains on the US sanctions list to be an all-round talent in the overall management of a government.
Given their decades of specialised experience, police officers in a leadership position are unlikely to have in-depth knowledge of finance, economics, anti-epidemic and healthcare crisis management, administrative management, and even cultural policy. Can he maintain confidence and fairness in leading his officials and distributing resources? Is he capable of seeing the big picture, implementing comprehensive governance, establishing domestic trust and building a global name, thereby keeping international financial capital in Hong Kong?
Will peace be achieved thereafter? Or will the pro-Beijing camp and their officials in Hong Kong adopt a stance of passive resistance towards a chief executive that they do not truly look up to? The chaos over the past three months, in a new Hong Kong that has no democratic parties, has already given us an answer.
This article was first published in Chinese on CUP media as "林鄭月娥下台，香港更迷茫".
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