As Hong Kong's embattled leader flies to Beijing this weekend for her third annual duty visit, all eyes will be on what Chinese President Xi Jinping has to say on the city's ongoing civil unrest.
But analysts said apart from the public greetings and messages and body language, it is the key instructions behind closed doors that will decide whether Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's government will change its course and in what direction.
They believe China's top leaders, including Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, and Vice-Premier Han Zheng, could make use of the opportunity to brief Lam on issues ranging from protecting national security, rebuilding ties with the pro-establishment camp, to imposing sanctions on American organisations.
Sources told the Post that Lam was expected to fly to Beijing on Saturday, meet Xi and Li on December 16, and return to Hong Kong the day after.
The meetings will be the first after Hong Kong's pro-establishment bloc suffered a humiliating, landslide defeat at the district council elections, with the pro-democracy camp winning 392 out of 452 seats on November 24, taking control of 17 of the 18 district councils.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said even though Xi and Han had met Lam on November 4 and 6 respectively, the duty visit was not just about more meetings with China's top politicians.
"It is the annual occasion when the chief executive submits her report to state leaders, and then they will evaluate her work in the past and look forward to the year ahead," he said.
After a four-day plenary meeting in October, Communist Party leaders issued a communique that devoted considerable attention to Hong Kong. It said Beijing would strengthen supervision of the city's affairs, and "establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security" in Hong Kong and Macau.
Lau believes Xi and Li will tell Lam what the central government's plans are, especially in terms of national security, and what they expect her to do.
"They are also likely to urge Lam to do more to stop violence and end chaos in Hong Kong," he said.
Meeting Lam in Shanghai on November 4, Xi said he trusted the chief executive, quashing speculation she could be replaced, even as he signalled her government must quell the five months of social unrest.
Two days later, in a meeting with the chief executive in Beijing, Han, the top leader overseeing Hong Kong affairs, also acknowledged Lam's work. But he also made it clear that ending the turmoil was the responsibility of the entire administration - the executive, legislature and the judiciary.
But after nearly two weeks of relative calm, chaos returned on December 1, as a group of protesters hurled bricks and police fired tear gas, while radicals set about smashing shops after a peaceful march.
Song Sio-chong, professor of the Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau at Shenzhen University, said with the return of violence, it seemed there was little for Lam to report to Xi.
"When the president met her in November, the instruction was clear. She needs to stop the violence, have wide-ranging dialogue with Hong Kong people and improve people's lives," Song said.
"To have dialogue with society means you will have to unite friends, soften foes and win over the middle ground. What she did so far is very limited and ineffective."
Bruce Lui Ping-kuen, a China watcher and senior lecturer in journalism at Baptist University, warned that with pro-Beijing politicians' unprecedented loss at the polls, and increasingly apparent grievances against Lam, it was possible state leaders could discuss with the chief executive plans to replace her.
"Beijing could consider whether Lam is now a negative asset, and would undermine the pro-Beijing camp's chances at the Legislative Council polls in September," Lui said.
"Lam could be given some tasks, to protect national security and end protests with judicial means, and then the central government would deal with the city's leadership pragmatically."
It is unlikely that Xi will publicly rebuke someone he picked as the chief executiveBruce Lui, senior lecturer in journalism at Baptist University
In December 2004, less than three months before the city's first post-colonial leader Tung Chee-hwa stepped down, he was ordered by President Hu Jintao to lift his administration's game.
In strong remarks seen by many observers as a dressing down of the city leader, Hu also called on the Tung team to improve governance by identifying the inadequacies of its rule.
In sharp contrast, in November 2014, Xi cited a line from an ancient poem - "strong winds reveal the strength of sturdy grass" - as praise for then chief executive Leung Chun-ying's loyalty and resilience. That was the first meeting between Leung and Xi since the 79-day Occupy protests erupted in September.
Lui said while it remained unclear whether Xi would have any public word of praise for Lam, it was almost certain the city leader would not get a dressing down from the president.
"It is unlikely that Xi will publicly rebuke someone he picked as the chief executive," he said.
Lau went a step further by saying it remained unthinkable for Lam to be rebuked or replaced when there were bigger headaches for Xi to deal with.
"As there are disturbances in Hong Kong, China and the US are fighting each other, and China's national security has been seriously challenged, no Chinese leader would want to create more factors of uncertainty," he said.
"Hong Kong's pro-establishment camp need to unite, and become an effective intermediary between the government and the people, and the city's government also needs stability. Compared to these, replacing the chief executive is only a small issue with a lower priority."
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