HK leader Carrie Lam’s postponement of policy address has ratcheted up anticipation-and the potential for disappointment

25-Nov-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:51 AM Print This Post

Hong Kong’s leader is slated to give her fourth policy address on Wednesday, rolling out her government’s latest road map for tackling the city’s mounting economic, social and political issues.

But analysts say Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has her work cut out for her if she hopes to satisfy the soaring expectations not only of the city’s residents and financial and business communities, but also China’s top leaders in Beijing.

The stakes for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address there are especially high. Photo: Felix Wong

The stakes for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address there are especially high. Photo: Felix Wong

Since Hong Kong’s return from British rule in 1997, public expectations for the chief executive’s policy address have always been high, with the annual occasion seen as an opportunity for the city’s leader to lay out their vision of governance and to unveil major policy initiatives with the potential to help the underprivileged and bolster businesses.

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But this year’s expectations were, if anything, even further inflated after the policy address, originally slated for October 14, was abruptly postponed by Lam just two days before. In delaying the speech, Lam cited the need to attend meetings on the mainland to secure opportunities for Hong Kong’s economic recovery amid the gloom of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Lam and five senior officials the city’s financial services, mainland affairs, tech, health and transport chiefs visited Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen from November 3 to 7 for a series of meetings.

But Lam failed to secure what she said had been her top priority: re-establishing cross-border travel between the city and the mainland in a bid to bring much-needed customers to flagging local businesses.

Nonetheless, Lam described her trip as a success and ratcheting up expectations even more promised the fruits of her much-vaunted mainland meetings would be revealed in her November 25 address.

But Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute think tank, said it would be tough for Lam’s speech to live up to the public’s hopes given the constraints she is facing.

“I think she will announce some broad directions of the central government’s support for Hong Kong, but there will not be many details at this stage,” Fung said.

“From the perspective of governance, she should not have bet on something uncertain before deciding to delay the policy address… In hindsight, she should have delivered her speech as originally scheduled and announced new measures later based on her discussions with the central government.”

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, also said the postponement had only served to dial up residents’ anticipation all the more.

“Residents still have high hopes that Lam can do something to control the pandemic, so that Hong Kong can come out from this difficult situation as soon as possible,” he said.

A main theme of Lam’s upcoming address, Lau added, was to be the Greater Bay Area project, Beijing’s ambitious plan to integrate Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and eight other Guangdong cities into a global finance and technology hub.

Local politicians have urged the chief executive to use the plan as a springboard to revitalise Hong Kong’s ailing business environment, as well as to boost young people’s confidence in their future by offering them more job opportunities on both sides of the border.

“If mainland Greater Bay Area cities can offer preferential treatment to Hong Kong, cross-border economic activities can resume. So Lam needs to come up with strong and effective measures for epidemic control,” Lau said.

Some analysts, meanwhile, have warned that Beijing also expected Lam to act on political issues namely safeguarding national security and overhauling the judiciary to correct what the central government viewed as misconceptions about the “one country, two systems” governing principle, a suggestion that has already ruffled feathers inside Lam’s own administration.

China’s top legislative body approved a resolution earlier this month allowing for the summary dismissal of any sitting lawmaker deemed to have committed a number of offending acts, including violating their oath of allegiance or endangering national security. The new mechanism, which bypasses the city’s courts and the existing constitutional procedure for removing a lawmaker, led to the immediate ousting of four opposition lawmakers.

The 15 remaining pan-democratic lawmakers also resigned in protest.

A week later, senior Beijing official Zhang Xiaoming told a summit on the Basic Law that “people who are anti-China… are out”, and that love for the country “has become a legal requirement now”, calling for judicial reforms that placed “patriotism” alongside core Hong Kong values like democracy and human rights.

Lau said the central government would now be watching Lam’s address to see whether she can up her game in the coming year.

“Now that the opposition camp is gone, Beijing hopes that the pro-establishment bloc and the government can make achievements to regain people’s support and trust,” he said.

“Through her policy address, Lam must show people feel that there are new initiatives that they can be excited and hopeful about.”

Whether she will be able to do that, even with initiatives that animate her own camp, remains to be seen.

Sources said that given the changes in Beijing’s priorities, it would now be the Hong Kong government’s top task to introduce local legislation to further formalise rules around public officers’ oath-taking.

“The government’s priority at the moment is to amend local laws to align them with Beijing’s resolution that disqualifies lawmakers found to have violated their oath,” one source said.

That meant a controversial plan for allowing Hong Kong residents to cast ballots in local elections from the mainland, previously a pro-establishment priority, was no longer as pressing as it might have been before.

The source said Lam was now unlikely to offer concrete details of the plan, including an exact timetable for implementation, in her policy blueprint.

On the financial services front, analysts originally expected the talks in Beijing to touch on a launch date for the Wealth Management Connect scheme.

The scheme was unveiled in June, and would allow Greater Bay Area residents in Hong Kong and on the mainland to buy investment products through banks on both sides of the border.

But a source familiar with the cross-border cooperation matters said the timing of implementation of the scheme was still being deliberated, and there was much left to hammer out.

“The central government’s support is that the wealth connect scheme will come, but it seems there’s still a lot to be agreed upon in terms of scale and channels,” the source said.

While announcing the launch of the scheme was a long shot, the source said Lam might unveil some more modest improvements to Stock Connect schemes between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, such as allowing more Hong Kong-listed biotech firms to take part and promoting private equity funds, family offices, real estate investment trusts.

Andy Ho On-tat, who served as former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s information coordinator from 2006 to 2012, said that, in hindsight, it had been politically unwise for Lam to postpone her policy speech.

“It would have been better for her to announce her policy blueprint as originally scheduled,” he said.

Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said regardless of the timing, pandemic-preoccupied Hongkongers had no faith that Lam’s policy speech would bring about meaningful improvements in their livelihoods.

“Lam is too unpopular,” Ngok said.

But Lau Siu-kai remained hopeful, saying the policy address could still be seen as acceptable if Lam was able to tell people where the city is heading.

“It’s almost impossible for it to make people cheerful, but at least people want to see a light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel.”



Category: Hong Kong

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