Xi Jinping’s message to Hong Kong: You’re stuck with Carrie Lam

Updated 11:03 AM EST, Tue November 5, 2019
In this Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, talks with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a meeting in Shanghai, China. Lam is here for the second China International Import Expo (CIIE). (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)
Ju Peng/AP
In this Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, talks with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a meeting in Shanghai, China. Lam is here for the second China International Import Expo (CIIE). (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)
Now playing
02:14
Xi Jinping's message to Hong Kong: Get used to Carrie Lam
screengrab afghanistan taliban
AFPTV
screengrab afghanistan taliban
Now playing
03:50
How Taliban may run Afghanistan after US troops withdraw
screengrab japan fukushima daiichi
IAEA
screengrab japan fukushima daiichi
Now playing
02:31
Japan plans to release treated Fukushima water into sea
SUEZ, EGYPT - MARCH 29: The container ship 'Ever Given' is refloated, unblocking the Suez Canal on March 29, 2021 in Suez, Egypt. This morning the container ship came partly unstuck from the shoreline, where it ran aground in the canal last Tuesday, and later resumed its course shortly after 3pm local time. The Suez Canal is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and the blockage had created a backlog of vessels at either end, raising concerns over the impact on global shipping and supply chains. (Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images)
Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images
SUEZ, EGYPT - MARCH 29: The container ship 'Ever Given' is refloated, unblocking the Suez Canal on March 29, 2021 in Suez, Egypt. This morning the container ship came partly unstuck from the shoreline, where it ran aground in the canal last Tuesday, and later resumed its course shortly after 3pm local time. The Suez Canal is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and the blockage had created a backlog of vessels at either end, raising concerns over the impact on global shipping and supply chains. (Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images)
Now playing
00:57
Egypt seizes Ever Given ship, asks for $900M in compensation
Taiwan has been the chief source of tension between Washington and Beijing for decades and is widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic US-China war. The worry about Taiwan comes as China wields new strength from years of military buildup. CNN's David Culver reports.
PLA Air Force/Weibo
Taiwan has been the chief source of tension between Washington and Beijing for decades and is widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic US-China war. The worry about Taiwan comes as China wields new strength from years of military buildup. CNN's David Culver reports.
Now playing
04:04
Dramatic videos show Chinese naval exercises amid rising tensions over Taiwan
CNN
Now playing
05:40
Unprecedented footage shows front line of Ukrainian conflict with Russia
5995404 02.09.2019 Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference following his meeting with his Russian counterpart Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Russia. Iliya Pitalev / Sputnik  via AP
Iliya Pitalev/SPTNK/Sputnik via AP
5995404 02.09.2019 Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference following his meeting with his Russian counterpart Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow, Russia. Iliya Pitalev / Sputnik via AP
Now playing
04:09
Iran accuses Israel of sabotaging nuclear site, vows revenge
Ash rises into the air as La Soufriere volcano erupts on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, seen from Chateaubelair, Friday, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Orvil Samuel)
Orvil Samuel/AP
Ash rises into the air as La Soufriere volcano erupts on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, seen from Chateaubelair, Friday, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Orvil Samuel)
Now playing
01:08
See the looming clouds of ash over La Soufrière volcano
screengrab Vanuatu villagers mourn philip
Reuters
screengrab Vanuatu villagers mourn philip
Now playing
02:03
Remote tribe worships Prince Philip as god, mourns his death
ITN
Now playing
01:15
Prince Charles speaks following Prince Philip's death
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10: The Honourable Artillery Company fire a gun salute at The Tower of London on April 10, 2021 in London, United Kingdom.  The Death Gun Salute will be fired at 1200 marking the death of His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Across the country and the globe saluting batteries will fire 41 rounds, 1 round at the start of each minute, for 40 minutes. Gun salutes are customarily fired, both on land and at sea, as a sign of respect or welcome. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, said "His Royal Highness has been a great friend, inspiration and role model for the Armed Forces and he will be sorely missed." (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 10: The Honourable Artillery Company fire a gun salute at The Tower of London on April 10, 2021 in London, United Kingdom. The Death Gun Salute will be fired at 1200 marking the death of His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. Across the country and the globe saluting batteries will fire 41 rounds, 1 round at the start of each minute, for 40 minutes. Gun salutes are customarily fired, both on land and at sea, as a sign of respect or welcome. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, said "His Royal Highness has been a great friend, inspiration and role model for the Armed Forces and he will be sorely missed." (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:03
Prince Philip tributes pour in from around the world
People view flowers left in front of the gate at Buckingham Palace in London, after the announcement of the death of Britain's Prince Philip, Friday, April 9, 2021. Buckingham Palace officials say Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died. He was 99. Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16 to return to Windsor Castle.
Matt Dunham/AP
People view flowers left in front of the gate at Buckingham Palace in London, after the announcement of the death of Britain's Prince Philip, Friday, April 9, 2021. Buckingham Palace officials say Prince Philip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, has died. He was 99. Philip spent a month in hospital earlier this year before being released on March 16 to return to Windsor Castle.
Now playing
01:54
Tributes to Prince Philip pour in from around the world
Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in his role as Captain General, Royal Marines, attends a Parade to mark the finale of the 1664 Global Challenge on the Buckingham Palace Forecourt in central London on August 2, 2017.  
After a lifetime of public service by the side of his wife Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip finally retires on August 2, 2017,at the age of 96. The Duke of Edinburgh attended a parade of Royal Marines at Buckingham Palace, the last of 22,219 solo public engagements since she ascended to the throne in 1952.
 / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HANNAH MCKAY        (Photo credit should read HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/Getty Images)
HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in his role as Captain General, Royal Marines, attends a Parade to mark the finale of the 1664 Global Challenge on the Buckingham Palace Forecourt in central London on August 2, 2017. After a lifetime of public service by the side of his wife Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip finally retires on August 2, 2017,at the age of 96. The Duke of Edinburgh attended a parade of Royal Marines at Buckingham Palace, the last of 22,219 solo public engagements since she ascended to the throne in 1952. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HANNAH MCKAY (Photo credit should read HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:39
The life of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
screengrab myanmar ambassador to UK
CNN
screengrab myanmar ambassador to UK
Now playing
01:02
Video shows Myanmar's ambassador 'locked out' of embassy
King Abdullah II of Jordan and his half brother, former crown prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein
AFP/Getty Images
King Abdullah II of Jordan and his half brother, former crown prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein
Now playing
02:39
Jordan's King breaks silence about family fallout
CNN
Now playing
06:13
Inside Iraq's crippling crystal meth crisis
(CNN) —  

A week ago, it seemed like Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam might have been on the verge of being ousted.

While her government denied rumors that Beijing was drawing up plans to replace her, few would have denied Chinese President Xi Jinping had cause: Lam has repeatedly admitted responsibility for the months-long political crisis rocking the semi-autonomous Chinese city, even reportedly offering to resign in the early days of the demonstrations, as large numbers of people took to the streets to protest an extradition bill she sponsored.

But on Monday, Xi sent a resounding message: Lam is here to stay.

Xi “voiced the central government’s high degree of trust in Lam and full acknowledgment of the work of her and her governance team,” according to state-run news agency Xinhua, which also published a photo of the pair shaking hands and smiling.

Beijing’s decision to stick by Lam makes sense, replacing her would have opened a can of worms in an already unstable environment. But in a city where many see the hand of China in most government policies and pronouncements – and distrust them for this very reason – Xi’s full-throated endorsement could risk underlining for protesters just how much Lam is Beijing’s instrument.

It’s hard to imagine another political system where a senior politician could – by their own admission – have created the level of unrest that Carrie Lam has wrought in Hong Kong, and still keep their job.

Stay another day

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” Lam said of her disastrous extradition bill, in a recording of a private speech leaked to Reuters in September. “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

She didn’t – or was not allowed to – quit, and speaking in public after the recording leaked, Lam said she would “rather stay on and walk this path together with my team and the people of Hong Kong.”

But rumors that she had attempted to resign or was on the verge of being replaced have dogged her ever since, and it’s not hard to see why.

That no Hong Kong officials have lost their jobs over the crisis contrasts sharply with protests elsewhere in the world. In the past three months, protests in Puerto Rico brought down Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a matter of days; Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri stood down after less than two weeks of unrest, and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera sacked his whole cabinet in response to widespread and occasionally violent demonstrations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a meeting in Shanghai on November 4, 2019.
Ju Peng/AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping talks with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a meeting in Shanghai on November 4, 2019.

While it may appear surprising that no official has been asked to fall on their sword in the former British colony, the unwillingness to get rid of Lam makes sense.

Her departure would cause more problems for Beijing than it would solve.

Under the city’s constitution, if the office of chief executive becomes vacant, a successor must be selected “within six months.” Lam and all of her predecessors were chosen by an “election committee” which purports to represent a broad swath of society, but is dominated by pro-Beijing figures and follows the central government’s lead.

This situation has long been a point of contention in Hong Kong. An attempt to reform it ended with acrimony in 2014 when Beijing refused to allow candidates to stand without being pre-approved, kick-starting the months-long Umbrella Movement protests.

It’s possible that an interim chief executive could be appointed, such as when the city’s first leader after its handover from British to Chinese rule, Tung Chee-hwa, resigned in 2005. His successor Donald Tsang served out the rest of Tung’s term, and was subsequently reappointed for a full five-year term in 2007.

Regardless of how Lam were to be replaced, a rearranging of the top post would focus attention on the fifth of the protesters’ demands: universal suffrage.

03:49 - Source: CNN
Video shows journalist injured as police fire on protesters

Chinese democracy

If getting rid of Lam risked further inflaming protests in Hong Kong, Xi’s very public, very enthusiastic endorsement of her could do the same.

Lam’s resignation was called for in the early days of the protests but has largely been displaced by other demands – particularly an investigation into allegations of police brutality. Nevertheless, her popularity is in the doldrums, with her net approval rate at minus 71 points, according to polling by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute.

All Hong Kong chief executives are somewhat trapped between enacting the will of the people they in theory represent, and following Beijing’s orders when the requirements of the Chinese state contradict that will. A more malleable political system might have given Lam an easy public win over Beijing on some inconsequential issue, in order to prop up her autonomous bonafides. But whenever it has come down to Hong Kong vs China in recent years, the decision has always gone Beijing’s way.