The Enigma of New HK CEO Carrie Lam

The Enigma of New HK CEO Carrie Lam
Credit: Reuters / Bobby Yip

What you need to know

New Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam has proved a master of the art of "responding without answering", enabling her to glide smoothly from one crisis to the next and emerge as the only person Beijing was willing to entrust with the top job.

Hong Kong now has a new Chief Executive, duly selected last March and formally sworn into office by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on July 1. Having served her first 100 days in office, she delivered her first formal speech to the Legislative Council on Oct. 11. This is known as the Policy Address and by long-standing local tradition marks the start of the legislative calendar following summer recess. She is Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥), a career civil servant, and the first woman to hold the top government job whether under British rule before 1997 or Chinese rule after.

Carrie Lam needs no introduction in Hong Kong. Her path to power has been well recorded in the contentious political events of recent years as she has somehow managed to move smoothly from one crisis to the next and emerge as the only person Beijing was willing to entrust with the top job.

It follows that she reflects what Beijing leaders mean when they proclaim their steadfast commitment to Hong Kong and to the range of promises they made in 1997, along with a firm determination to define that commitment on their own terms. As Beijing leaders see it, the talents and training of a civil servant are evidently those best suited for leading Hong Kong today, 20 years after its return to Chinese rule. In other words, she has been entrusted with the task of keeping up appearances, calming troubled waters, and imposing Beijing’s will — all at the same time.

Political Inheritance

The new 2017 to 2022 term was supposed to have been the first for a Chief Executive elected by universal suffrage. The failure to achieve that goal marked a major turning point in Hong Kong’s understanding of its new post-colonial status as a Special Administrative Region within the Chinese People’s Republic. It was a turning point because the failure marked the culmination of a decades-old political reform movement aimed at achieving universal suffrage elections for both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council. These promises were also written into the Basic Law constitution that governed Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule.

Most everyone involved in that political quest assumed the promises meant open Western-style elections. Beijing decision-makers evidently assumed otherwise because they ruled otherwise and ultimately issued a decree, on Aug. 31, 2014. That "8.31" decision stipulated a format that anticipates mainland Chinese-style elections with Beijing leaders designating the candidates.

The decision sparked Occupy, the civil disobedience movement that blockaded Hong Kong’s major thoroughfares for 79 days during the autumn of 2014. Beijing refused to modify its decision and pro-democracy legislators refused to accept it. Beijing then ruled that the 2017 Chief Executive must be selected in the old way by the conservative designed-for-purpose Election Committee. The exercise was meant to let everyone know what was not fully understood before, namely, that Beijing reserves to itself the right to determine the specific direction that Hong Kong’s political reforms must take.

A handful of potential candidates nevertheless declared their interest in the 2017 selection contest, whereupon Beijing intruded even more directly. On Dec. 25 last year, a meeting of Chinese Communist Party leaders resolved unanimously to back Carrie Lam for the post. They then went on to advertise their choice among Election Committee members and lobby on her behalf (Feb. 27, 2017 post). The decision was formalized by the Election Committee a few months later (Mar. 27 post).

Hong Kong’s tea-table pundits had actually expected Beijing to stand firm and endorse the incumbent, Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), for the second term he had obviously been expecting. They reasoned in the old-fashioned way that to do otherwise would give the appearance of weakness and undermine Beijing’s authority. Leung had governed for five years as an unapologetic loyalist in the face of constant heckling and calls for his resignation. So it actually suggested a degree of deference to Hong Kong sensibilities when Leung Chun-ying, unexpectedly last December, announced his decision to stand down “for family reasons.”

From Beijing’s perspective, Carrie Lam represented an equally safe pair of hands minus the friction that Leung’s confrontational personality provoked. Besides being calm, cool, and always collected, she had also mastered that special civil servant’s skill of responding without answering. Perhaps for that reason, she also seems oblivious to the political currents — of dictatorship and democracy — swirling around her since unlike her predecessor she has yet to betray any interest or inclinations one way or the other.

Hong Kongers learned the most about her work style when, as Chief Secretary or Number Two in the Hong Kong government hierarchy, she was responsible for leading the political reform exercise through all its stages: from the public debates and consultation in 2013 to 2014; through the Occupy street protest in late 2014: and the final Legislative Council vote to veto Beijing’s electoral reform design in June 2015.

She did her best, even participating in an unprecedented open debate with student leaders during Occupy (Oct. 27, 2014 post) But she betrayed no inclinations of her own and as the political reform campaign dragged on for the better part of two years, it seemed safe to question whether she actually understood what pro-democracy campaigners wanted or why or what they feared with respect to Hong Kong’s future because she never addressed those concerns.

The slogan she used to promote Beijing’s and the government’s electoral reform designs was “pocket it first” (袋住先), a Cantonese saying used in property negotiations. It means something like "take what’s on offer now and hope for a better deal later." But she never addressed the most obvious question: pocket it now, and then what? It was left to a Beijing official at the very end of the campaign in 2015 to explain what Democrats had feared when they head it for the first time on Aug. 31, 2014: that was what Beijing meant by universal suffrage elections.

The Policy Address

Hong Kong has always had a legislature even if its members did not begin to be elected until the 1980s and even if only half the 70-member body is directly elected even now. In recent years there has been some indecision as to whether the Policy Address should be synchronized with the start of the mainland People’s Congress system that begins at the start of each calendar year. But for now, Hong Kong seems to have reverted to the old pre-1997 routine.

The timing may be conventional but policy-wise, the conception and design of this year’s Policy Address are mainland-style through and through. The formula is reminiscent of that adopted by Beijing after the central government wrote an end to its own political experiments in 1989. Since then Beijing’s governing strategy has remained: the pursuit of economic prosperity first and foremost; in a political world dominated by patriotism and loyalty to the party-led government, without opposition or dissent.

Chief Executive Lam titled her address: Connect for Hope and Happiness. Toward that end, she promised to focus on economic development, innovation and technology, creative industries, affordable housing, health care, poverty alleviation, labor rights, education, and youth development — in that order.

These are issues that do concern most sectors of the population — with one glaring exception. She largely avoided discussing the single greatest current cause of unhappiness and receding hope for Hong Kong future.

She has said repeatedly in recent months that her aim is to “heal the rifts” in society — her way of referring to the current political controversies. Concluding her address, she said, “My vision is for a Hong Kong of hope and happiness … To achieve this vision, we need to have a society that is united, harmonious and caring.” But like her “pocket it first” slogan, the controversies can’t be solved if she remains unwilling to even specify what they are. She seems to be hoping they will eventually just fade away under the impact of a mainland-style carrot-and-stick governing formula that combines economic benefits with political discipline and strict adherence to the official line laid down.

One sympathetic writer lauded her affordable housing proposals as a move to promote social and political stability. He suggested that a young man with monthly mortgage payments would be much less likely to take to the streets (HK Economic Journal, Oct. 12). The only problem is that young people do want affordable housing, but that’s not why they march. They march because they see a steady erosion of the rights and freedoms they thought would be protected after 1997, and they fear the mainland’s political ways and means.

At a press conference after her speech, Carrie Lam demonstrated the same disconnect. In her address, she had mentioned all the controversial issues but only in passing. Asked by journalists for more specifics, she gave her now standard reply: a harmonious social environment must be created first.

She noted the chants from pro-democracy legislators as she entered the council chamber and the placards they held up with the message from their most recent, October First, protest march. The placards read: “Oppose Authoritarian Government.” She said when she could enter the Legislative Council peacefully and receive proper respect, that would be the time to revive controversial measures like political reform (SCMP, Apple Daily, Oct. 12).

As for the controversial measures she had passed over so lightly in her address, she said, with respect to the Basic Law’s Article 23 national security mandate that her government would “seek to create a favorable social environment for the community to handle this constitutional obligation” (Address, paragraph 23).

On the Article 45 promise of selecting Chief Executives by universal suffrage, she noted her recent 2013 to 2015 failure and the Occupy movement that she said had severely impacted Hong Kong’s social and economic development. She said she would work to create a positive social environment for trying again but that future political reform must be “within the framework” of the central government’s 8.31 decree (para. 24).

On education, she said it is the duty of schooling to help students understand all aspects of their country and “cultivate in them a sense of their national identity.” Toward that end, among other things, Chinese history is to be introduced as an independent compulsory subject at the junior secondary level beginning with the 2018/19 academic year (para. 132).

Meanwhile, her theme throughout was cross-border interaction and integration, or in her own words “enhanced cooperation with the mainland.” Unlike her predecessor, she did not directly name and blame the new independence advocacy. She said instead that everyone was responsible for rejecting “any attempt to threaten our country’s sovereignty, security and development” (para. 2).

She also noted that in recent months Hong Kong’s courts had issued decisions in some cases that had “sparked some negative comments on judicial independence, with some casting doubts about our courts’ freedom from external interference.” She did not identify the cases in question. Nor did she mention current demands to reverse the retroactive disqualification, pursued by her predecessor, of four Legislative Councilors in the oath-taking saga (Sept 6, 2017 post). She declared such accusations to be ill-founded because the Basic Law guarantees Hong Kong’s judicial independence (para. 19).

At least on one point, no one is likely to quibble. She was not so bold as to predict that the social harmony she seeks will emerge during her first, 2017 to 2022 term in office. She also refuses to speculate on prospects for a second term.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.