HONG KONG -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam abruptly postponed her annual policy address, a political event widely considered one of the most important in the territory, in order to attend a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping across the city's border with the mainland.
The announcement came shortly after Beijing said on Monday that Xi would speak in Shenzhen to mark the 40th anniversary of establishment of China's first special economic zone there.
In a hastily called news conference on Monday morning, Lam attributed the postponement of the speech that had been scheduled for Wednesday to high-level Chinese ministerial meetings in Beijing at the end of October, saying she "just received the notice from the central government."
"I understand that this decision being made two days before [the scheduled policy address] would invite a lot of speculation, and a lot of people will have criticism, but this is for the good of Hong Kong," Lam said.
While noting that she "cannot reveal every single detail" of her planned talks, Lam said that she will be discussing a wide-range of topics, including facilitating a swift economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and enhancing cooperation with Shenzhen and other cities in the Greater Bay Area project.
Top Chinese officials are set to gather for a Communist Party Central Committee meeting in Beijing Oct. 26-29.
While Lam departed for Shenzhen on Monday afternoon ahead of Wednesday's ceremony, she insisted that it was not the direct trigger for delaying her speech.
"I have no scheduled meeting with President Xi during his visit to Shenzhen," she said, adding that the sole purpose for her trip is to lead a delegation to the celebration.
Lam said that she would reschedule her policy address for late November, after her meetings in Beijing.
While there had been speculation that Xi would travel to Shenzhen soon, the commemoration and the top leader's trip were made official only on Monday morning, when the state-owned Xinhua News Agency confirmed that the president would deliver an "important speech" on Oct. 14. The actual date of the 40th anniversary was Aug. 26.
"I think the main reason for postponing the policy address is her trip to Shenzhen this afternoon, which she only found out about a while ago," Emily Lau Wai-hing, a former Legislative Council member, told Nikkei Asia.
Regarding Lam's statement that she will visit Beijing later this month to further discuss issues such as economic and business collaboration with mainland cities, Lau said: "This argument doesn't hold water. She should have known this long time ago, and it is unconvincing to present it as an excuse for postponing the policy address."
Lau added: "She doesn't and can't give up an opportunity to meet President Xi in Shenzhen. The timing was not her choosing, but she didn't have the courage to tell Hong Kong people the truth."
Hong Kong's policy address traces its history back to the colonial period in 1972 when then-Governor Murray MacLehose delivered the first one, entitled the "Address by H.E. [His Excellency] the Governor" and modeled after the Queen's Speech in the U.K., in order to strengthen communications with local residents following leftist riots in 1967.
The speech became known as the annual policy address in 1986 and the event was inherited by the city's chief executive after the 1997 handover. Article 64 of the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution, stipulates that the government of Hong Kong, headed by the chief executive, "shall present regular policy addresses to the [Legislative] Council."
It has been customary to hold the policy address in October -- with only a few exceptions -- when the new session of the legislature opens, with months of advance preparation, including public consultations.
This year's address was due to be presented to a newly elected legislature. However, Lam, with a full backing of Beijing, postponed the polls that were to be held Sept. 6 by about a year, citing coronavirus risks. Sitting legislators have been allowed to stay on, though a few have chosen not to.
Lawmakers, government officials and Hong Kong citizens regard the address as the chief executive's most important regularly scheduled public speech. It is broadcast live on television and followed by debates and discussions in various corners of society.
"Of course, the policy address meant nothing to Beijing and could be moved to fit in with President Xi's schedule," Lau said.
Additional reporting by Stella Wong.