Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung came seriously close to getting over-excited this week when he gushed that President Xi Jinping had delivered a “vote of confidence” in the Chief Executive and her administration.

The following day, after a meeting between the Hong Kong leader Ms Carrie Lam and Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who is in charge of the city’s affairs, this vote of confidence was downgraded to something called a “full acknowledgement” of the work done by Carrie Lam and the SAR government.

Matthew Cheung
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung on November 5. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Even if the so-called “vote of confidence” still exists Mr Cheung should have learned to contain his excitement. However, he appears to be suffering from memory loss as he has forgotten the remarkably similar circumstances in which Tung Chee-hwa, the first SAR Chief Executive, was eased out of the office on spurious grounds of ill health in 2004.

Here’s a reminder of what happened. The hapless Tung, taking advice from Regina Ip – then the Secretary for Security and now the Executive Council member responsible for remembering and learning nothing from experience – embarked on a highly controversial attempt to impose draconian national security laws on Hong Kong by way of implementing Article 23 of the Basic Law.

This attempt was met by what then looked like monster protests involving some 500,000 people and there was wall-to-wall criticism of the Tung/Ip blunder. The result was that the legislation had to be withdrawn; Ip resigned but Tung clung to office.

Rumours that he would also have to go were rife. But as late as November 2004, Tung got a “shot” in the arm following a meeting with President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of an APEC gathering. Hu pledged “vigorous support” for Tung’s administration and Tung came back to Hong Kong seemingly assured that his job was safe.

The following month Hu’s tune changed and he publicly criticised Tung, comparing him unfavourably with the leadership in Macau and saying that improvements needed to be made in his “capabilities and abilities to govern.”

2003 protest Article 23
Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003. Photo: Stand News.

Three months later the hapless Tung was packing his bags and making way for Donald Tsang. Since he went quietly he was showered with various PRC positions and awards but the blunt truth is that he was kicked out.

At the time of his departure, Tung had a lowly approval opinion poll rating of some 49 per cent. It’s the kind of figure that Carrie Lam can only dream of, as her rating languishes around 20 per cent. She is utterly devoid of allies, aside from a small group of bureaucrats. Political figures who were once in the pro-government camp now spend their time edging as far away from her at they can.

If she is naïve enough to believe that her brief meeting with President Xi this week has secured or even bolstered her position she must be even dafter than most people consider her to be.

She presumably does not understand the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party, which holds its people close right up to the moment when they are consigned to the dustbin of history. Examples of this in PRC history are very well known, but evidently not in the hermetically sealed corridors of Fortress Tamar.

The Financial Times broke the story of Lam’s removal and suggested it would happen in March (exactly the same month of Tung’s departure). My own sources continue to believe that this is credible and moreover that it will lead to a wider shake-up in the administration, something that Beijing has already hinted at.

The laughable myth that somehow Hong Kong people have any choice in the selection of their leader has, were any doubts still lingering, been laid to rest. The majority of the dogged loyalist members of the 1,200 strong Election Committee will do exactly what their masters tell them to do, as they have done in previous elections.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam. File photo:

By and large, however, the selection of the new leader is failing to excite even the smallest scintilla of hope of resolving the current crisis as the people rumoured to be under consideration are very much in the mould of all the previous failed Chief Executives.

Among those being talked about is the intensely ambitious and markedly arrogant Norman Chan, who has just stepped down from an entirely unremarkable stint running the Monetary Authority. Then there’s the amiable but intellectually unencumbered Henry Tang, who bungled the last attempt to install him in the post.

Other possibilities include Laura Cha, who has occupied without distinction many official positions, including membership of Executive Council. Or, maybe they will go with a firm Beijing favourite, Margaret Chan, installed by China as head of the World Health Organisation, whose departure from that post was greeted with long sighs of relief by health professionals.

In other words, there is little or maybe no hope that Ms Lam’s successor will be any better. The Number Five Chief Executive will be chosen on grounds of loyalty to the bosses in Beijing and not for standing up for Hong Kong. Indeed every signal coming out of Beijing these days suggests that control over Number Five will be even tighter.

So, whether Ms Lam goes or stays hardly matters, she is anyway the Chief Executive in Name Only.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship