Beijing isn’t doing Carrie Lam any favours with its blatant signals
Alice Wu says this chief executive election has been remarkable for Beijing’s openness in indicating its preference, but the alienated and frustrated people of Hong Kong would welcome a less visible hand
Almost everyone “knew” Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was Beijing’s preferred candidate for chief executive. The Post reported that “Hongkongers generally favour [John] Tsang in the race, but accept that Lam stands a better chance of winning Beijing’s blessing.”
Hongkongers have accepted that Beijing has a say in the matter, that in order to make “one country, two systems” work, it cannot be cut out of the equation, and that it has the political berth to indicate its “views”. Call it our famous pragmatism.
Hongkongers have grown used to the signalling after the previous chief executive [s]elections. But there seems to be something amiss about it all this time. Before, it was clearly very carefully calibrated, with a lot of consideration to ensure the signalling was nuanced – it was Beijing’s nod to the “one country, two systems” premise and constitutional promise of a high degree of autonomy.
It isn’t that we should be taking issue with high-level state leaders meeting the city’s movers and shakers in Shenzhen. We are used to such dealings by now. What should strike us as extraordinary is some of the leaked information provided by sources close to the arrangement. “The decision [for the preferred candidate] was made at the meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee on December 25,” a source told this newspaper. That was weeks before Lam even tendered her resignation.
Watch: Carrie Lam kicks off election campaign
Lam has warned against populist election promises. The alarm that populism has sounded around the world is something we must heed and understand. Political and social scientists are still trying to find its causes. But we do know that populism is fuelled by discontent, though it can manifest itself in different forms and is shaped by various social and political situations. Populism breeds where people feel disenfranchised and dislocated, and find that their grievances are ignored and not addressed by the ruling “elite” .
As we have sadly seen, reason – or the truth, or facts – does not inform the language of populism. It feeds on the desperation and frustrations of those feeling marginalised, through wealth disparity or hopelessness at being left behind by globalisation.
In Hong Kong, we have also been hit by globalisation, growing competition and economic inequalities. We have been hit by desperation and frustration. But we have also been hit by Beijing’s growing influence in our politics and decision-making.
We don’t need to list how the people have reacted to this in the past few years. Some chose the impossible – independence – just to be in Beijing’s face. Even Lam acknowledged it would be counterproductive if the public believed a “visible hand” was behind the election, while also saying that she could not stop such a hand from influencing electors. This sense of political helplessness fuels Hong Kong’s populism.
Populist campaign promises may well fuel our populist sentiment, but what feeds it most is the blatant exercise of Beijing’s influence. The threat of the diminishing power to choose – when we didn’t have a lot to begin with – drove thousands onto the streets. Political reform failed because people felt their vote could be rendered meaningless. Our politics has failed because little effort has been put into building trust. That requires give and take, at least, never mind a consensus.
It is should be disheartening for Beijing’s favourite to see that it is flexing a very visible arm. It may be meant for Lam’s benefit, but it is going to make her job that much harder. What she really needs are more visible nods from Beijing to “one country, two systems”.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA