Carrie Lam’s promise of unity a good start towards healing city
Tackling deep-rooted problems such as housing and the wealth gap, safeguarding ‘one country, two systems’ and promoting economic growth will be the key challenges for city’s first female leader
That Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor would lead the city for the next five years or more may have seemed like a fait accompli long before members of the Election Committee cast their votes yesterday. It was nonetheless important that the veteran civil servant earned yesterday’s endorsement. Now that the months-long, divisive election campaign is finally over, it is time for us to unite and rebuild Hong Kong under the new leader.
The former chief secretary has rightly made reconciliation and unity her top priority. In her victory speech, a humble Lam, who will be the first woman to lead the city, pledged to heal the city’s divide and ease people’s frustrations.
The higher-than-expected number of votes for Lam should give her a strong footing to lead. Unlike outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who got 689 votes in 2012, Lam won 777 of the 1,163 valid votes cast yesterday. She appears to enjoy broader support than her predecessor, as least within the pro-establishment camp.
Tributes should go to former finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing and New People’s Party leader Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee for their campaign efforts. Consistently rated as the most popular contestant, Tsang successfully engaged the public in what would otherwise have been just an uneventful ballot. All produced well thought-out visions and platforms, some of which deserve further consideration by the incoming government.
While Lam had Beijing’s endorsement and two-thirds support from the Election Committee, she was not the most popular contestant among the general public. Indeed, she is the only chief executive winner to have a low popularity rating. Whether that rating can rebound remains unclear, but it is important for her to win broader public support.
This will depend on whether she can adjust her image and style. Having worked her way up the civil service ranks for more than three decades, she is no doubt competent and familiar with public governance. But her work style and image as a demanding and self-assured boss have raised questions over inclusiveness and her working relationship with the civil service, even though she has swiftly dismissed such concerns.
If the past five years faced by Leung were difficult, the situation inherited by Lam is even more challenging. Politically, tensions within our society and with the mainland are rising. Socially, many deep-seated issues, such as the wealth gap and unaffordable housing, remain unresolved. No less worrying is lacklustre economic growth. The immediate task for Lam is to form a strong ruling team to take on the challenges. Although she did not give any specific names, she said she would welcome people of ability regardless of affiliation, and indeed it is important for Lam to tap support from a wide political spectrum. This could help to ease long-standing confrontations and to smooth governance.
But it will not be easy. Lam did not win any nominations from the pan-democrats. Even if some switched sides and voted for her during yesterday’s secret ballot, it would only have been a small minority. A continuing divide does not bode well for the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. It would not be surprising if the filibustering by some pan-democrats continued.
While it would be naive to expect reconciliation overnight, it is essential for both sides to try and narrow their differences. Lam became the pan-democrats’ target as soon as she was seen as Beijing’s favourite. Be that as it may, the convention in a mature democracy is to put aside differences after the campaign. As Tsang asked of his supporters yesterday, the winner should be given a chance to lead. Lam’s plan to establish a mechanism to enhance communication with different political parties is the right step.
The challenges obviously go beyond healing the political and social divide. Immediately after the results, Beijing confirmed Lam as meeting the criteria for a chief executive and said the appointment procedures would follow. But the authorities also expressed their expectations of Lam. A spokesman for the liaison office hoped that Lam could reconcile different sectors in society and implement the “one country, two systems” formula and the Basic Law in an “accurate and comprehensive manner”.
These are as much the aspirations of Hongkongers as of Beijing. As the 20th anniversary of reunification draws near, concerns over the city’s future have never been greater. How we chart the course of “one country, two systems” in the next five years will have far-reaching implications for Hong Kong as a special administrative region under Chinese rule.
It is assuring that Lam realises she is accountable to both Beijing and Hong Kong. When asked whether her endorsement by Beijing would compromise her role as Hong Kong chief executive, she said she was known for being courageous and would not hesitate to speak up for the city. As Lam said, the job of the chief executive is to tackle issues from a more macro perspective, rather than just executing solutions. More importantly, she needs to show that she got the job not just because of Beijing’s blessing, but because of her own qualities and the support of the people.