What Hong Kong can expect from Carrie Lam’s first 100 days

Regina Ip says the city’s new chief executive knows the importance of scoring quick wins. But, there are many more difficult livelihood and economic problems than easy ones, even without political issues such as Article 23 and universal suffrage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 10:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2017, 9:27pm

When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor attends the Legislative Council as chief executive for the first time on Wednesday, there are good reasons to believe that she will be greeted much more gently than her predecessor.

Quite apart from her gender advantage (even the most irreverent members of the council have, in the past, shown much more restraint and courtesy towards female colleagues and officials), as a person she is far less combative than her predecessor Leung Chun-ying. She is likely to sail through her rite of passage in Legco at her first question-and-answer session, winning much higher marks than all the men before her.

Since her election, Lam has played a few cards well. To the pan-democrats, she has extended an olive branch by inviting representatives from all pan-democratic parties for consultation, except for a few identified as “pro-independence”. She appointed barrister and former pan-democrat legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah to the Executive Council. Although Tong, regarded as a turncoat by his former colleagues, is unlikely to be able to help Lam win brownie points with the pan-democrats, Lam’s appointment to her cabinet of Professor Law Chi-kwong, a founding member of the Democratic Party, should help her garner more support.

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Lam has probably learned that it would be wiser to score quick wins in her first 100 days than to lock horns with Legco on contentious issues. For example, it would be hard for legislators to say no to more resources for teachers and to increase teacher-student ratios. These have been long-standing requests from the education sector. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Lam has quickly clinched a deal with legislator Ip Kin-yuen, representative of the education sector, to allocate additional recurrent annual funding of HK$5 billion to create more posts for teachers, and to spend an additional HK$18 billion on a one-off basis for educational purposes.

All indications thus far are that legislators are willing to accommodate. It remains for Lam to pull out all the stops to persuade the Finance Committee to give her funding request fair wind for speedy approval.

So much for the “easier” problems that money can solve. Now comes the hard part – long-standing domestic, “livelihood” problems that money alone cannot solve; structural economic problems which require a strong and clear vision and equally strong power of implementation; and constitutional issues which could set off a political firestorm.

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The question of how to resolve “MPF offsetting” – that is, the practice of allowing employers to offset their employees’ severance pay or long-service payment against their accumulated Mandatory Provident Fund benefits on retirement – is one problem for which Leung failed to deliver a broadly acceptable solution. In view of the wide chasm between employers and the labour sector on the optimum solution, it will not be easy for Lam to hammer out a consensus without substantially sweetening Leung’s deal offer.

Accolades conferred by overseas institutions mask the fact that Hong Kong’s economy is lacking in innovation, weakened by entrenched vested interests, and plagued by high costs

Formulating a workable response to the long-standing demand for “standard working hours” from the labour unions is another issue Lam will not be able to dodge.It remains to be seen whether Law, the new secretary for labour and welfare and a man known to have strong pro-labour sympathies, will be able to find a way out between unionist demands and business recalcitrance.

Economic restructuring to improve Hong Kong’s long-term competitiveness will be a tough job for Lam. Quite apart from the fact that she herself has little economic or business background, personally and professionally, it will be hard to fix Hong Kong’s stagnating economy after 20 years of stasis, stuck in the archaic, colonial mould. Glowing economic data and “free trade” and “most competitive” accolades conferred by overseas institutions mask the fact that Hong Kong’s economy is lacking in innovation, weakened by entrenched vested interests, and plagued by high costs. Lam will need a lot of help to get the engine of the economy moving again.

The hardest part lies in improving Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland. This requires a much deeper and broader effort than festooning the city with lanterns or national flags to celebrate the visit of Chairman Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ).

Polls show a steady decline in Hong Kong people’s sense of national identity. Although any activities that come close to resembling promoting Hong Kong independence are being nipped in the bud, the recent trend of young people refusing to acknowledge China as their country is a cause for grave concern. Lam has much work to do to restore young people’s sense of shared destiny with the nation.

Beijing cannot wish away the growing sense of hopelessness in Hong Kong

Lam’s plate is full enough even without adding the twin issues of enacting local legislation to protect national security and responding to Hong Kong people’s call for universal suffrage. Recent pronouncements by Beijing officials suggest national leaders are losing patience over Hong Kong’s long-standing inability to fulfil its part of the constitutional bargain. Mrs Lam has maintained a carefully crafted silence on this subject. But the days when she will have to take up the cudgels on this issue on the nation’s behalf may not be far away.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party