Will she, won’t she? Hong Kong environment undersecretary Christine Loh tight-lipped on role in Carrie Lam’s new government

City’s No 2 official for the environment reflects on five years in power, battling bureaucracy, and working with the chief executive-elect

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 12:25pm

She had worked on almost every aspect of public policy in her career – from the offices of think tanks to the chambers of the Legislative Council. But the years of experience couldn’t prepare environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai for the bureaucracy that came with life in government.

Now after five years walking the corridors of power, Hong Kong’s No 2 official for the environment is tight-lipped on whether she will be in the new administration come July 1, when chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor takes office.

Loh describes herself as an “admirer” of Lam, saying she was “definitely a good superior officer to work with and work for” when the latter was the government’s chief secretary.

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Lam meanwhile has expressed an interest in promoting more deputies to lead their bureaus and appointing more female ministers.

The undersecretary has also thrown her weight behind some of Lam’s policy recommendations. She agrees, for instance, that the Environment Bureau and Environmental Protection Department – merged in 2005 – should be split.

“It should be done. It’s something I support,” Loh said.

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Currently, the department head also holds the position of permanent secretary in the bureau, an arrangement that environmental groups have long claimed could put the director at risk of coming under political influence.

Trained as a lawyer and having worked in commodities trading, Loh ventured into politics as an appointed Legislative Council member in 1992, winning two direct elections in 1995 and 1998, but quitting before the 2000 poll.

She was appointed to her current position in 2012, which gave her the opportunity to influence public policies she had spent more than a decade researching at Civic Exchange, the think tank she founded in 2000. Her appointment was well received by the environmental advocacy sector and among the city’s pan-democratic camp of politicians.

In the last five years she has led the charge for better air quality, nature conservation and capacity-building on climate change, all areas she believes have seen considerable successes.

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“From my perspective, I’ve done what I hoped was possible,” she said.

Having spent time as a legislator helped her efforts, she added.

“It’s good that I had been in politics before. Just having the familiarity with how Legco works, understanding what politicians are like, being on the other side – it really helped. As for the bureaucracy, this was, I would say, the most significant issue I had to get used to.”

Asked if five years was too short a period to achieve her goals, Loh said: “Five years is not a short time in our personal lives. But in policy terms, it’s not a long time.

“Political appointments are a different class of animal from the civil service. You serve at a particular time when you can, to do what you can.”