The Chinese government is drawing up a plan to replace Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, with an “interim” chief executive following violent protests against her administration, according to people briefed on the deliberations.
The people said that if Xi Jinping, China’s president, decided to go ahead, Ms Lam’s successor would be installed by March and cover the remainder of her term, which ends in 2022. They would not necessarily stay on for a full five-year term afterwards.
When Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first Chinese chief executive, resigned in 2005, Donald Tsang, the territory’s then most senior bureaucrat, served out the remainder of his term and was reappointed chief executive for a full five-year term in 2007.
Leading candidates to succeed Ms Lam include Norman Chan, former head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and Henry Tang, son of a textile magnate who has also served as the territory’s financial secretary and chief secretary for administration, the people added.
The protest movement, now in its fifth month, is seen as the most serious challenge to Communist party authority on Chinese soil in three decades. Protesters say they will not stop until the territory’s chief executive and legislators are chosen through democratic elections.
Chinese officials want the situation to stabilise before making a final decision on whether to proceed with a leadership change, as they don’t want to be seen to be giving in to violence, according to the people briefed on the discussions.
Officials are hoping the violence will subside as arrests mount and now weekly vandalisation dissipates public support for the protests. March is when China’s rubber stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, holds its annual session.
Ms Lam’s handling of the crisis has been marred by a series of mis-steps, including her decision to press ahead with the controversial extradition bill that sparked the protests even after a series of massive and peaceful marches in early June, analysts said. She was later forced to drop the bill, which was formally withdrawn on Wednesday in the territory’s legislature.
The Financial Times reported in July that Ms Lam had offered to resign, but Beijing forced her to stay on. The Hong Kong and Chinese governments later denied that she had wanted to step down.
Mr Chan is one of the “three Chans” viewed as possible successors to Ms Lam. But the other two — Paul Chan, financial secretary, and Bernard Chan, convener of an “executive council” that advises Ms Lam — are viewed as being too close to her now discredited administration.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which Norman Chan headed for a decade, is widely respected as an independent institution that has successfully managed the territory’s US dollar currency peg for almost 40 years.
Mr Tang, meanwhile, only served under Ms Lam’s predecessors.
“We have to look within at people who have served in government but also know how business operates here,” said one prominent member of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment. “And of course they need to be trusted by Beijing.”
Henry Tang, the son of a textile tycoon, joined the Hong Kong government in the early 2000s, holding the roles of finance secretary and chief secretary of administration. He is widely remembered for removing the import duty on wine in a plan to make the city a wine hub.
Mr Tang’s bid for the chief executive role in 2012 failed following scandals including the discovery of a 2,000 sq ft illegal basement at his home that drew strong media interest amid suggestions it housed part of his large wine collection. He had been considered Beijing’s favourite for the post, as well as having support from local tycoons.
In 2013, the avid collector sold a batch of rare Burgundy wines by auction for $6.1m, saying he would be “unable to consume it even across multiple lifetimes”.
Norman Chan joined the civil service in 1976, before helping to set up the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in the early 1990s.
Following a brief stint as Asia vice-chairman for Standard Chartered in 2005, Mr Chan returned to government service. He was appointed as chief executive of the HKMA in 2009, a role he held until his retirement in September this year.
He is a staunch defender of the Hong Kong dollar’s peg, and during his time as head of the HKMA he recalled a nerve-racking summer in 1983 as public confidence collapsed during Sino-British negotiations, sending the currency sharply lower.
At the HKMA he also presided over Hong Kong’s role in the push to internationalise the renminbi.
A spokesperson for Ms Lam and the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to requests for comment, but China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday said the FT’s report on plans for an interim chief executive was “a political rumour with ulterior motives”.
In a leaked audio recording, released last month by Reuters, Ms Lam said that “for a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable”. She added: “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”
On October 4, Ms Lam enacted emergency powers allowing her to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and introduce a law that banned people from wearing masks during public assemblies, punishable by up to one year in prison.
As people participating in unauthorised or violent demonstrations already risked lengthy jail terms of up to 10 years, the ban only deterred people from wearing masks at peaceful marches and rallies that had secured police permits. Opposition to the move triggered Hong Kong’s worst weekend of violence since the protests began, resulting in the closure of the territory’s entire rail network for almost 48 hours.
Last week, Ms Lam’s annual policy address, which she had to deliver via a pre-taped video recording after pro-democracy legislators disrupted her speech, was also widely viewed as a missed opportunity to address at least some of the grievances fuelling the protests.
“We needed a big bang but this government doesn’t have any imagination,” said a senior executive at one of Hong Kong’s largest companies.
“To calm things down, Carrie Lam needed to do two things,” said Simon Cartledge, author of a book about Hong Kong’s political economy, A System Apart. “First, announce an independent inquiry into the events of the last five months and second, say that when the time was right — say, early next year — her government would start looking at how to move Hong Kong’s political development forward. That was all, but she did neither.”
Mr Tang campaigned to be chief executive in 2012 and was initially viewed as Beijing’s favourite for the post. But his popularity plummeted after it was discovered he had built an elaborate basement complex at his home without proper approvals.
As a result, Chinese government officials directed the 1,200-member “election committee” that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive to vote instead for his rival, Leung Chun-ying, who was leading Mr Tang in public opinion polls.
After Mr Leung’s chances of serving a second term were upended by pro-democracy protests in late 2014, the Chinese government wanted Ms Lam to succeed him even though her rival for the job, John Tsang, was more popular with the general public.
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