Hong Kong’s leader has abruptly postponed her Wednesday policy address, citing the need to secure more opportunities for the city’s post-pandemic recovery from Beijing, and will instead spend the day with President Xi Jinping in Shenzhen to celebrate its 40th anniversary as a special economic zone.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor revealed in a hastily arranged press briefing on Monday that her most important speech of the year laying out her policies would be pushed back to the end of November.
“There is absolutely no intention on my part to belittle my own policy address,” Lam said, rejecting criticism for delaying it for the first time in the city’s history.
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The postponement was made public two hours after state media reported that Xi would officiate a ceremony to mark the four-decade milestone for Hong Kong’s neighbour on Wednesday, which would clash with Lam’s policy address as originally scheduled.
But Lam insisted the primary reason for the delay was to attend meetings in Beijing later this month on developing the Greater Bay Area – a scheme integrating Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen and eight other southern Chinese cities into a finance and technology hub. This would be a key economic force for accelerating the recovery of Hong Kong and the nation, she said, and would have implications for her own policy address.
“I have been putting forward proposals for the central people’s government to consider, and they have responded positively lately with the suggestion that since the proposals … encompass a range of subjects, the best way forward is for the chief executive to go to Beijing and personally explain why these measures are important for Hong Kong,” Lam said.
“This is a very good opportunity that no chief executive would forgo. That’s why I’m making this trip to Beijing … and I’m already announcing this as soon as possible after I was notified of this arrangement.”
Describing that as “the real reason” for delaying the policy address, she said no meeting had been scheduled for her to sit down with President Xi in Shenzhen.
Opposition lawmakers and commentators, however, were not convinced, accusing Lam of putting the mainland ahead of the city and undermining its high degree of autonomy. Some accused her of effectively reducing herself to a “puppet” of Beijing.
But pro-establishment legislators said they respected Lam’s decision and hoped that with more discussions, the Hong Kong government’s wish list could be turned into an action plan.
News of Xi’s Shenzhen trip sparked the biggest rally in the Hong Kong and mainland stock markets since July on optimism that the president would unveil new initiatives to further its market reforms.
The CSI300 Index, which tracks the biggest companies trading on the Shanghai and Shenzhen bourses, surged 3 per cent in the biggest gain since July 6. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index rose 2.2 per cent, the most since July 21.
Asked why she could not deliver her speech as planned, and then announce more measures after her Beijing meetings, Lam replied that she had always hoped her policy address would instil hope and confidence in Hong Kong’s future, and it was more likely to do so if it was made in November once the extra provisions had been secured.
“Do we want a policy address that is richer in content, and more likely to boost Hong Kong people’s confidence that the city’s economy is going to emerge from these difficulties?” she said.
“If we know that [confidence and recovery] are the biggest goals of the address, and it’s possible that I can get Beijing’s support so that it might achieve those goals, why must I be so stubborn to read out the address on a designated date and disappoint the people?”
Lam stressed that while the rest of the world was struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, mainland China’s economy was on the rebound and Hong Kong would have to look north for its own recovery.
Under the “one country, two systems” governing principle, Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy on a wide range of socio-economic issues. Asked if the postponement showed that the city’s government was depending too much on the mainland for policy initiatives, Lam said she was in fact proactively putting forward proposals for the central government to endorse.
“This is the gist of ‘one country, two systems’ – that the central government is unswerving in caring about Hong Kong, and under the ‘two systems’, the chief executive puts forward proposals rather than just following Beijing’s plans,” she added.
Under British rule, the tradition of the governor delivering the policy address at the first meeting of a new Legislative Council session began in 1969. The convention continued after the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China, with the city’s chief executives taking over the tradition.
In an unprecedented move a year ago, Lam delivered her policy address via a video message, after her speech in the Legco chamber was repeatedly interrupted by opposition lawmakers chanting slogans amid the anti-government protests triggered by the since-withdrawn extradition bill.
Lam will be joined in Shenzhen by several senior ministers including Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, Innovation and Technology Bureau chief Alfred Sit Wing-hang and Director of the Chief Executive’s Office Eric Chan Kwok-ki.
The official Xinhua news agency confirmed the report and said that Xi would deliver a “crucial speech” during Wednesday’s ceremony, in which he was expected to stress the nation’s commitment to reform and opening up.
The visit comes just ahead of the fifth plenum, a high-level meeting to chart China’s economic and political direction for the next five years and decide how Beijing responds to increasing Western pressure over its role in global affairs.
It is also expected to shed light on Beijing’s views on Hong Kong’s role in the US$1.65 trillion economy of the southern Greater Bay Area.
“Xi will emphasise China’s commitment to continuing its opening to the US and the rest of the world,” a mainland Chinese source based in Shenzhen said. “This is the best moment to clear the clouds before the party plenum.”
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University, suggested Lam had postponed her policy address because Beijing wanted to wait until the conclusion of the fifth plenum, as well as the US presidential election on November 3.
“Beijing may want the policy address to adapt to its latest policies towards Hong Kong. The autonomy for the Hong Kong government to draft its own policy blueprint is shrinking,” he said.
Calling Lam Beijing’s “puppet”, opposition lawmaker Wu Chi-wai of the Democratic Party said: “Hong Kong people have expectations on the policy address because their lives have been difficult under the pandemic. Lam is basically ignoring their woes and turning Hong Kong’s policy address into a document approved by Beijing.”
But pro-establishment lawmaker Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan said it was more practical for Lam to discuss her plans with Beijing first.
“Without discussing the actual content with mainland ministries, the policy address will only be a wish list … After she visits the ministries, the measures can be implemented and the document will be turned into an action plan,” he said.
Hong Kong Trade Development Council director of research Nicholas Kwan Ka-ming said he did not think the emphasis on Shenzhen meant Hong Kong would be marginalised, pointing to other global financial centres such as London and New York playing different, complementing roles.
“It won’t be a case of either Hong Kong or Shenzhen getting bigger, or only one of them becoming more important,” he said. “Like New York and London, Hong Kong can be an off-shore market for China while Shenzhen, Shanghai or other mainland cities play an on-shore role. They complement each other.”
On the stock market rally, Alan Li, a money manager at Atta Capital in Hong Kong, said: “Investors are looking forward to Xi’s speech in Shenzhen … No matter if it is to strengthen Shenzhen’s function in fundraising or tech innovation, it will benefit new economy stocks.”
Traders are looking to Xi’s address for signs of possible market reforms in Shenzhen and their potential impact on Hong Kong’s role as a major financial centre and bridge between foreign investors and mainland China.
Earlier, Tam Yiu-chung, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), the country’s top legislative body, backed Lam’s visit to Shenzhen for the celebrations.
“She represents Hong Kong and should join, as state leaders will take part in the 40th anniversary of Shenzhen,” he said, adding, as he headed to Beijing for a regular NPCSC meeting, that he himself would be absent.
Shenzhen was designated a special economic zone on August 26, 1980, as part of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to open up China to the world.
Additional reporting by Cheryl Heng and Iris Ouyang
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