When Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) visited Hong Kong last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and officiate at the inaugural ceremony of the new government with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), he gave a major speech in which he laid down the law for the territory.
“Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible,” he said.
Beijing was clearly unhappy with Hong Kong, what with an incipient independence movement, a combative outgoing chief executive, a deadlocked legislature and activists advocating localism or urging the end of Chinese Communist Party rule in China.
A year later, Hong Kong is a changed place. Lam has avoided sensitive issues, adopted a much softer tone and tried to make friends with everyone.
Beijing is giving her little room to maneuver. There are credible reports that officials of the Liaison Office, China’s representative body in Hong Kong, no longer call legislators to offer advice.
The opposition has also refrained from pressing her to act on universal suffrage, knowing that it is not within her power and that China will not budge.
Although the rift between the pro-establishment and pro-democratic camp remains wide, the latter is in a weaker position in the legislature, having lost six seats as a result of Beijing’s intervention in 2016 in what is known as the oath-taking saga, when six lawmakers were disqualified for taking their oaths improperly.
Because of new rules against filibustering, lawmakers last year were much more efficient and passed 26 bills, compared with 12 bills in 2016.
Political tension has been substantially lowered because of Lam’s focus on bread-and-butter issues.
Housing is by far the most pressing issue, with sky-high prices that keep on rising. There are more than 200,000 people living in subdivided apartments. The waiting time for public rental apartments is more than five years, with several hundred thousand people on the waiting list.
Lam has adopted various measures to increase housing units, including a tax on vacant apartments.
Such steps are in accord with Beijing’s wishes. Xi, in his address, advocated focusing on economic — not political — issues. Development was the “top priority.”
“Development holds the golden key to resolving various issues in Hong Kong,” he said. “Young people want to bring out the best of their talent. People in mature years want to be successful and the seniors want to enjoy their golden years. All this can only be achieved through development.”
And development there has been. Last year, Hong Kong’s economy grew a robust 3.8 percent and growth in the first quarter of this year was 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment hit the lowest level in 20 years.
Hong Kong must perform, not just for itself, but for the nation. As Xi said, China’s “one country, two systems” policy stemmed in large part from a desire for Hong Kong to maintain its status as an “international financial, shipping and trading center to promote growth.”
Even this year’s annual July 1 protest by Hong Kongers with all sorts of grievances against China and the local government was much smaller than previous years, with the police saying that 9,800 people marched, while the organizers said that 50,000 protested — a far cry from the 500,000 who turned out in 2003 to protest against a proposed anti-subversion law.
By any measure, this has been a good first year for Lam. She has achieved this by ensuring that she toes Beijing’s line while adopting a soft tone.
She needs to enhance her legitimacy by showing through action that she is doing her best for the people of Hong Kong.
However, now, with the first year behind her, she needs to act.
“Our community has a rightful expectation toward the government to provide adequate housing,” she said in her policy address.
If she does not deliver, she will lose the momentum she has built.
Meanwhile, she has to look after China’s interests. Beijing wants Hong Kong to enact national security legislation as soon as possible and wants to see progress in national education.
If Lam loses Beijing’s trust, she will not be able to govern. In her first year, everyone was willing to give her space, but this will not last forever.
Frank Ching opened the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau in 1979 after 10 years with the New York Times.
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