A historic series of protests has left Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, fighting for her political life. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand the chief executive’s resignation -- and even establishment figures are questioning her judgment -- after she pushed an unpopular bill that would for the first time allow extraditions to China. But replacing a Hong Kong chief executive is a complicated, closed-door affair, deeply entangled with the central problem facing Hong Kong: How do you balance the city’s desire for autonomy with China’s demands for control?

1. Who would replace Lam?

If Lam resigned tomorrow, responsibility for leading the city of 7.5 million would fall immediately to Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung. Hong Kong’s Basic Law -- the “mini-constitution” drafted before the former British colony’s return to China in 1997 -- says the chief secretary can act as chief executive for as long as six months. Before that interim period ends, the city’s 1,200-member Election Committee must meet to select a new leader. The panel is comprised of political insiders overwhelmingly loyal to the government in Beijing, giving China’s Communist Party the ultimate say.

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2. Who might seek the job?

China’s pattern of promoting up-and-comers through the chief secretary’s job puts the spotlight on Cheung. But the former longtime labor secretary lacks the profile and broad experience of predecessors, including Lam, who last year was forced to deny local media reports that she was considering replacing him. Other former contenders may be viewed as too divisive -- such as Executive Council member Regina Ip or former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying -- or too sympathetic to the opposition, like ex-Financial Secretary John Tsang and retired legislative chief Jasper Tsang. With no obvious successor, Beijing might need to keep Lam, 62, around for a while. “She would be a lame duck, but most likely she’d stay in office on a default basis,” pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien said.

3. Who gets to pick a new chief executive?

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While a campaign for Hong Kong chief executive looks a lot like any major mayoral election, with stump speeches, rallies and policy platforms, the choice rests with an electoral college of business and political elites, including several billionaires. China can veto any winner it doesn’t like. That’s why Lam soundly defeated John Tsang to win the 2017 election, even though he held a wide lead in public opinion polls. In the end, she was chosen by 777 electors, a total that had the unfortunate coincidence of sounding like a Cantonese expletive.

4. What’s happened in the past?

In 2005, Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader, Tung Chee-hwa, resigned after mass protests forced him to withdraw China-backed national security legislation. Tung, a shipping magnate, lingered on the job for more than a year after the biggest demonstrations as the party settled on a succession plan. He ultimately resigned under the Basic Law provision allowing a chief executive to step down if “he or she loses the ability to discharge his or her duties as a result of serious illness or other reasons” -- the same grounds Lam would need to cite if she quit.

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5. How long would any successor serve?

That’s something of an open question. When Tung stepped down in 2005, the government asked China’s parliament to interpret what was seen as a question in the Basic Law as to whether the new leader would be elected for a new five-year term or the remainder of the old one. “It uses language that makes clear that interpretation is not applicable in future situations,” according to Danny Gittings, a legal scholar and author of “Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law.” Theoretically, China could reach a different resolution this time around. In any case, Lam has three years remaining in her term.

--With assistance from Blake Schmidt.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brendan Scott in Singapore at bscott66@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, Grant Clark

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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