Hong Kong. China plans to replace Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam with an 'interim' chief executive, the Financial Times reported, citing people briefed on the deliberations, which would bring to a close Lam’s rule after months of pro-democracy protests. Lam has become a lightning rod for sweeping protests over fears that Beijing is tightening its grip and limiting the freedoms enjoyed under the 'one country, two systems' principle enshrined when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
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Millions of people have taken to the streets in Hong Kong since mid-June in protest at now-suspended draft legislation that could have seen people sent to mainland China for trial in Communist party-controlled courts. Sources told the FT that officials in China wanted a stabilised situation before a final decision can be made on any leadership changes, because they do not want to be seen to be giving in to violence.
"If Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to go ahead, Lam’s successor would be appointed by March and cover the remainder of her term, which ends in 2022," the newspaper said. According to the FT, Lam’s top successors include a former head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Norman Chan, and Henry Tang, who has also served as the territory’s financial secretary and chief secretary for administration, the report said.
"Originally they were going to wait to take action until unrest settles down. Now there seems like there is no end. It’s now concluded that there’s no expected timeline for the unrest to stop. We’re just going to create more and more damage," said Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing legislator. Tien said he had not been part of any briefings about Lam’s stepping down but has been aware of discussions of the possibility since August. “The [Chinese Communist Party] will never, never not hold anyone accountable,” he said.
Speculation over Lam’s future came as a man whose murder case prompted the extradition bill and set off the protest movement was released from prison. Chan Tong-kai, who is alleged to have killed his pregnant girlfriend while on holiday in Taiwan, was freed from a Hong Kong jail on Wednesday morning after serving 18 months for money laundering.
Chan, who cannot be tried in Hong Kong for a crime committed in Taiwan, was charged for stealing funds from his girlfriend. Speaking outside of the maximum security Pik Uk Correctional Institution, Chan bowed and said he had made the "worst mistake" of his life and said he was willing to face the consequences. "For my impulsive act and the things I did wrong, I am willing to surrender myself to Taiwan to face sentencing," he said.
In response to allegations Chan had been coerced into surrendering to Taiwan, Hong Kong officials said his decision was "purely out of his own free will." In a lengthy statement on Sunday, the government said, "Allegations that Chan was manipulated to surrender or his decision was out of political manoeuvring are totally groundless."
On Wednesday, Hong Kong rejected a request from Taiwan to send law enforcement to escort Chan to Taiwan where he faces murder charges and said Taiwan’s offer was "disrespectful" to Hong Kong’s jurisdictional power and "totally unacceptable."
Taiwan had previously refused to allow Chan to come to Taiwan and surrender himself, demanding a mutual legal assistance framework with Hong Kong be established first. Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has called the Hong Kong government "irresponsible" for how it is dealing with Chan’s case.
Lam’s government had argued for changing its fugitives law to allow suspects to be sent to jurisdictions where Hong Kong does not have extradition agreements, like Taiwan, Macau, as well as mainland China, in order to plug the loopholes exposed in cases like Chan’s. The bill, drawn up with little public consultation, prompted millions to take to the streets. After months of protests, Lam agreed to withdraw it in September.
That same month, in response to a Reuters report about a recording of Lam saying she would step down if she could, Lam said she had never asked the Chinese government to let her resign to end the Chinese-ruled city’s political crisis.
Although the extradition bill was finally withdrawn, the protests have continued, defying police rulings banning them. China has denied accusation it is eroding the freedoms granted in 1997, and has blamed foreign nations such as the United States and Britain for inciting unrest.