Toh Han Shih
In a press conference in Hong Kong on October 8, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, “At this point in time, I still strongly feel that we should find the solutions ourselves. But if the situation becomes so bad, then no options can be ruled out if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance.”
May I suggest this other option, that Lam be replaced by a capable Chinese official like Wang Qishan if the unrest in Hong Kong worsens and she proves unable to remedy the situation. The Chinese official should take charge of the metropolis for a temporary period, then hand over the reins to another local chief executive.
People may object to the replacement of a local Hong Kong chief executive by a Chinese official, saying it erodes “One Country, Two System” underpinning Hong Kong’s relation to the motherland. Since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the territory will enjoy high autonomy where Hong Kong leaders will govern Hong Kong.
But these are extraordinary times calling for extraordinary solutions. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, a US army officer said of a Vietnamese town devastated by battle, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Although the conflicts between protestors and police in Hong Kong are nowhere as bloody as the fighting between US forces and the Vietcong in the Vietnam War, the intense protests rocking the city make it necessary to destroy “One Country, Two Systems” to save it.
Lam messed up on two counts. The extradition bill, which was her idea, was passed in June, sparking continuous demonstrations which at times was attended by hundreds of thousands and marred by injuries. Lam announced the withdrawal of this law in early September.
Another brainchild of hers, a law forbidding protestors from wearing masks, took effect on October 5. This only provoked more demonstrations for four consecutive days from October 4 to 7 when some protestors wore masks in defiance of this ban.
Normally, governments do not pass laws unless they are enforceable. By pushing two laws that were not well enforced, in a way, Lam can be said to weaken Hong Kong’s rule of law, for which the financial hub has prided itself. China depends on Hong Kong’s rule of law to facilitate foreign investments into mainland China and Chinese investments to other countries in projects like the Belt and Road Initiative.
Since the protests began in June, Lam had offered to resign several times but the Chinese government refused, the Financial Times reported on July 14. The British newspaper quoted an unnamed source saying she “has to stay to clean up the mess she created” and “no one else wants the job.”
Given that Lam has made two mistakes with unpopular laws and is so far unable to reduce the protests to manageable proportions, it is questionable whether she should stay on to “clean up the mess”. If it is true that other Hong Kong officials are reluctant to take the hot seat of chief executive, Beijing should appoint a Chinese official to head Hong Kong for a temporary period.
Article 52 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong stipulates that the chief executive must resign if she loses the ability to discharge her duties due to “serious illness or other reasons”. Lam can do what Tung Chee-hwa did, quitting as chief executive in 2005 mainly on health grounds.
According to Article 53 of the Basic Law, if the office of chief executive becomes vacant, a new chief executive shall be selected within six months. Meanwhile, Beijing can appoint a Chinese official to fill in the gap during this interim period of six months.
Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan is an ideal candidate to take over as acting leader of Hong Kong. He has acquired a reputation of a trouble shooter assigned by Chinese leaders to resolve crises.
Wang has experience rescuing a city in distress. In 2003, Meng Xuenong resigned as mayor of Beijing after his mismanagement worsened the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the Chinese capital. Wang took over as mayor of Beijing and improved the situation with a more transparent approach where information on the infection was regularly given to the public.
In 1999, Wang managed the liquidation of a state-owned conglomerate, Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation, which had collapsed with US$5 billion of debt. Subsequently, he was involved in the restructuring of China’s inefficient state-owned enterprises.
As a former senior finance official, Wang is smart enough to realize drastic and wrongfooted measures risk sparking an exodus of foreign capital, companies and talent out of Asia’s World City. Wang and Chinese President Xi Jinping are not so stupid as to allow People’s Liberation Army tanks to patrol the streets of Hong Kong, aiming their guns menacingly at banks and office buildings.
If Wang takes command of Hong Kong, he might introduce measures that critics may possibly decry as curbing freedoms, but will preserve Hong Kong as an open, financial powerhouse in the long term. At 71, Wang probably has no interest in being a dictator for life and will bow out at the right time. This fire fighter can be trusted to ensure the long-term prosperity and vibrancy of Hong Kong.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions in this article are his own.