Lam paints rosy picture of Hong Kong at Oxford University
The man nicknamed the “human recorder” – Stephen Lam Sui-lung – was on top form when he made his first public appearance since leaving the government, treating a British audience to a rosy view of Hong Kong and the success of “one country, two systems”.
The optimism of the former chief secretary, in his speech at the University of Oxford, contrasted with growing concerns in Hong Kong about Beijing’s perceived influence in the city’s affairs and fears of a weakening of the rule of law.
But Lam’s performance compared closely to the sort of remarks he was known for as an official.
“I have always said if anyone can make ‘one country, two systems’ work, we can. And we did,” said Lam, who earned his nickname for endlessly repeating government policy and giving the same answers, no matter what question he was asked.
As the constitutional minister in charge of electoral reform in 2010, Lam this week expressed full confidence that universal suffrage was “a promise” from Beijing.
“The central government wanted to help Hong Kong along, and that is why the universal suffrage timetable was adopted in 2007,” Lam said. He was referring to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision to allow universal elections for the chief executive in 2017 and the Legislative Council in 2020.
“So, in a way, the ball is now in Hong Kong’s court,” he said, adding that his confidence “does not lie in any particular government but in the viability of Hong Kong as a society”.
He made his upbeat speech at the university’s Mok Hing Yiu lecture series at St Hugh’s College, on Wednesday, to an audience that included many Hong Kong students.
It left political analysts wondering if the former official, now studying theology, was opening a back door for a political return.
The similarity between his public and private personas also wasn’t lost on his listeners.
“I really want to thank you for speaking like a government minister even after you are retired; that is very valuable for us,” said Samson, a politics student from Hong Kong.
“Do you think you have any personal responsibility to promote democratisation in Hong Kong?”
Lam said he was speaking from his “heart of hearts” as a private citizen, with “a very frank attitude”, adding: “All of us have a role to play [in democratisation].”
Brushing aside suggestions of Communist Party influence in Hong Kong, Lam said such arguments simply underlined the openness of Hong Kong society.
“The fairness of the electoral system will guarantee that no political party, including those from the mainland, can sway public opinion in Hong Kong,” he said. “No one can determine how many votes can go to a party.”
He also stressed the maturity of the rule of law, despite recent controversial remarks by former justice secretary Elsie Leong Oi-sie, who said Hong Kong judges lacked understanding of the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong. This gave rise to rulings in which the top court superseded the central government’s power, she said.
Another Hong Kong student, Ting Wang-leung, who came from London to attend the lecture, said he felt Lam spoke with reservations.
“He certainly spoke [as though] he might want to leave himself a backdoor for getting back to politics someday,” said Ting, who is pursuing a politics doctorate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Lam was always careful to leave a door open for himself in public and private arenas.
“[Chief Executive] Leung Chun-ying faces a lot of governance problems and it is unclear whether he can finish his five-year term. It is possible that Lam may return to politics, as his carefulness has earned him trust from Beijing.”