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Carrie Lam: a tilt bridge between Hong Kongers and Beijing?

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam stands on the podium before taking her oath, during the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China, 1 July 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip).

In Brief

On 1 July, while Hong Kong celebrated the 20th anniversary of its handover to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping swore-in the city’s newest leader, Carrie Lam. But amid the celebrations, Hong Kong is uncertain about its future. Many locals are unhappy about being ruled by the mainland, with some activists calling for self-determination and independence.


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According to a University of Hong Kong survey released in June, only 3.1 per cent of Hong Kong citizens aged between 18 to 29 identify as ‘broadly Chinese’. The figure stood at 31 per cent when the half-yearly poll started 20 years ago. The result indicates that many of Hong Kong’s young people, rather than gradually accepting China’s growing role in the city’s affairs, have become further estranged from the mainland and are increasingly warming to a localism movement that puts the city’s autonomy, interests and culture first.

But in the eyes of Beijing, these localist agendas, albeit fledgling, are not far short of secessionism and should be contained before they go viral.

Not long ago, the National People’s Congress intervened in a local court case to disqualify from office two pro-independence lawmakers, Baggio Leung and Wai-ching Yau, for invalid oaths.

More recently, Zhang Dejiang, a state leader who oversees Hong Kong affairs, issued a stern warning that the city’s high degree of autonomy should not be used as a guise to confront the central government. He urged the Hong Kong government to enact a national security law — the so-called ‘Article 23’ — under its mini-constitution, an initiative that was shelved in 2003 after more than half a million people took to the street.

These heavy-handed responses are consistent with Beijing’s increasingly hardline approach to Hong Kong over the past five years. But they are raising fears about the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, which are guaranteed under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement that is supposed to last for 50 years.

The city’s newest leader thus faces a challenge that has dogged all her predecessors: how can she balance the concerns of officials in Beijing and those of many people in Hong Kong?

On one hand, she has played down the threat of separatist advocates, saying that affection for Hong Kong and Chinese national identity are not mutually exclusive. On the other hand, she has concurred with Beijing about the need to strengthen patriotic education to mould Hong Kong’s national consciousness.

Specifically, Lam seeks to cultivate the concept of ‘I am Chinese’ at the nursery level and make Chinese history a compulsory subject in junior secondary school. But this patriotic push could trigger a greater backlash. The rise of localism is partly rooted in the 2012 anti-national education movement, which bred a group of student activists like Joshua Wong, who later led the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

Since then, many localist organisations have been established, such as Demosistō, Youngspiration and Hong Kong Indigenous. The latter two even formed an electoral alliance and ran in the 2016 Legislative Council election, in which radical localists earned eight seats. They also won 19 per cent of the popular vote despite the government’s efforts to screen out localist candidates. While these groups are widely seen as somewhat of a disruptive force, their electoral success partly reveals how frustrated Hong Kong people have become over Beijing’s elusive promises of universal suffrage.

The speech given by Wang Zhenmin, a legal chief at Beijing’s liaison office, during an event to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Basic Law, provides a hint on the perceived sustainability of ‘one country, two systems’ on the mainland: the experiment must go on without any room for failure.

While it is too early to claim that the ‘one country, two systems’ model, which was initiated to help draw Taiwan into the one-China fold, is nearing a make-or-break moment, the rise of localism represents more than a glitch in mainland–HK relations.

To heal the political rift, it takes two to tango. Although the confrontational approach of localists may draw loud applause, their contributions to safeguarding the ‘two systems’ are questionable. Similarly, the short-term effects of repressing the city’s restive youth may also come at the cost of a long-term decay of government legitimacy.

There are some good signs, though. Unlike the former head of government CY Leung, Lam has vowed to mend the deep polarisation of Hong Kong society. Yet reconciliation is never easy, especially when at least 20 activists, including the leaders of the 2014 protests, have been charged for their involvement in street protests since her selection.

Time will tell if the interests of ‘one country’ continue to precede that of ‘two systems’ under the tenure of Hong Kong’s first female leader.

Steven Yet is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto.

One response to “Carrie Lam: a tilt bridge between Hong Kongers and Beijing?”

  1. The facts that 8 seats and 19% of the vote were garnered and that only 3.1% of young adults age 18-29 identify as broadly Chinese suggests that the localisation sentiment is quite powerful in HK. How will Lam bridge that gap when she is clearly beholden to the powers in Beijing?

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