WHEN John Lee was sworn in as chief executive two months ago, he pledged to safeguard China's "sovereignty, national security and development interests" as well as "to ensure prosperity and stability" of Hong Kong.
The chief executive in effect has two constituencies. As the Basic Law says, he is "accountable" to both "the Central People's Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."
Within Hong Kong, there used to be an opposition that challenged the chief executive's every move, but now the only constraint on him is Beijing.
This perhaps accounts for some recent odd behavior on Lee's part.
After Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, landed in Taiwan, Hong Kong issued a statement "strongly condemning" the visit. This was unusual as Chinese cities and provinces rarely take a position on foreign affairs. Even more strangely, besides the government statement, individual condemnations were issued by Lee and other top officials: the chief secretary, the financial secretary and the secretary for justice. Meanwhile, cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen said not a word.
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The following week, China issued a paper reiterating its claim to Taiwan. This time, Hong Kong's top officials were loud in voicing "firm support" for the paper. Statements were issued by the chief executive, the chief secretary, the financial secretary, the secretary for justice, the security secretary, and the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs.
This peculiar behavior — shouting Hong Kong's devotion to the Chinese Communist Party from the rooftops — may be a calculated move by Lee to burnish his credentials in Beijing's eyes. Within Hong Kong, the wide-ranging speech given by Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, on July 1 during Lee's inauguration is being studied intensively by senior officials.
The text has been sent to teachers so they can develop lectures for pupils from kindergarten on.
Lee's actions are likely to enhance Beijing's trust in him and possibly give him room for maneuver in other areas, such as tackling Covid-19, which is on the rise again with Hong Kong reporting 10,586 new cases on September 1, the highest level since late March.
Lee and Beijing are on the same page on economic issues, such as enhancing Hong Kong's role as an international financial, transportation and trading hub. Both agree on easing the city's housing shortage.
But Hong Kong's economic problems are largely the result of its anti-Covid policies. Lee recognizes the need for change but is unsure how far he should go.
On August 12, Lee reduced compulsory hotel quarantining of arrivals from seven days to three. While a big step forward, it is far short of what is required of a business hub, where visits may be as short as a day or two and any quarantine is unacceptable.
But Lee's room for maneuver is limited. China's zero-Covid strategy is attributed to Xi himself and is seen as part of an ideological contest with the West. No change can be expected before a party congress to be held October16, which is expected to give Xi five more years in power as communist party leader.
Within Hong Kong, the pressure is increasing to ditch anti-Covid measures so the city can reopen fully to the outside world. The city is being compared, unfavorably, with neighboring Singapore, which has lifted anti-Covid measures and is attracting talent away from Hong Kong.
Hong Kong also needs to reverse its image of no longer being a freewheeling or even a free city. Negative publicity is likely to worsen as major national security cases go to trial, including that of Jimmy Lai, former owner of the Apple Daily newspaper. His trial, without a jury, for alleged collusion with foreign forces is scheduled for December.
Lee so far seems unconvinced about widespread human rights criticism and is seeking to salvage the city's image through propaganda.
But he should realize that the problem is real and action needed just as in the case of tackling Covid. Hong Kong has already agreed to draft additional national security legislation to cover such areas not included in the Beijing-imposed national security law.
The UN Human Rights Committee in July asked Hong Kong to repeal that legislation because it is not compliant with a major UN human rights treaty on civil and political rights, endorsed by a vast majority of UN member states but not China. In particular, it found the law too vague in not specifying the types of conduct that constitute a criminal offense. One solution would be for Hong Kong to offer to redraft those sections. After all, that's what the Basic Law intended.