Carrie Lam, in her own words, on everything from nicknames to why some Hongkongers dislike the mainland

Read the Post’s in-depth interview with the chief executive race front runner

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 12:02pm

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor talks to the South China Morning Post on the day she bags 580 nominations from the 1,194-member Election Committee that will select Hong Kong’s next chief executive on March 26. The front runner in the race shares her views on mainland-Hong Kong relations, anti-business sentiment among Hongkongers, her relationship with the pan-democrats and her governance style.

Watch: Carrie Lam talks to SCMP about her chief executive bid

On Hong Kong-mainland relations and anti-business sentiments

Q: On indications from Beijing and its liaison office that you are the preferred candidate – you said many times that you can’t ask them not to do so. But do you think this sort of thing is healthy for “one country, two systems” and even for your campaign?

For my campaign, it’s definitely counterproductive. I’m sure you have seen. I have done nothing that deserves this sort of attack, to be very honest with you. What do you mean by telling them to stop? To publicly ask one party, one organisation to stop means that I know ... (Privately?) Privately is something not to be disclosed. Publicly, you’re falling into the trap that you agree that they’re interfering. I don’t know how they interfered, what did they say, how did they ask for votes. I just don’t know. How can I say in public “don’t do this and that” when I don’t know what they’re doing? ... And [there is a] lot of lobbying for all the candidates, not just for me. I’m sure you know what I mean – there are lot of people lobbying for individual candidates.

A: What sort of relationship do you envisage the liaison office and the chief executive should have?

The office is the liaison office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong. Truly there are things that we need the [office] to help us to liaise with the central authorities. Because the central authorities are not just the State Council – there are different ministries...

[Citing her platform about the mainland registration system for book publication, the shu hao] This is the right to publish in China. I went to see the publishing subsector, and they said that Hong Kong still had the advantage in terms of publishing and reading culture ... But we can’t really publish and distribute [on the mainland]. So can you help us to broaden the mainland market by going to the relevant authorities by obtaining this shu hao? Every year, they have hundreds of thousands of shu hao. They just need a couple thousand for Hong Kong so they can publish. So this is something perhaps the liaison office could help me as a CE to deliver for the publishing sector. Where should I go for the shu hao? What are the intricacies involved? Because I don’t want to look stupid in front of the ministries.

But what most Hong Kong people fear is the kind of interference of the liaison office on Hong Kong government.

It’s not for the liaison office to impose things on the Hong Kong SAR government. The Hong Kong SAR government has to act in accordance with the Basic Law and the CE is responsible to the Central People’s Government. I just don’t see ... I know there’s this perception, this fear, this worry, but in practice, how could the Central People’s Government impose things on the CE, which goes against the BL and this high level of autonomy promised in the Basic Law? If there are that sort of things, it is for the CE to tell the liaison office that this is my autonomy, I’m doing it. If you want to understand why I’m doing this, I’m going to explain to you. But that is still my prerogative.

How will you mend the relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong if you’re elected?

There are a lot of things to do ... In society, whether you like it or not, in recent years there has been a feeling of anti-mainland or dislike [of the] mainland. There is also similarly a feeling of anti-business. Both are not good for Hong Kong. So the government cannot just sit back and let the people have all these sentiments and things like that. There must be some reason for this sentiment to grow, so we have to tackle the source of these sentiments.

In the case of business, it could be because of real estate prices. Property prices are too high. It could be because of the Link, with all these shopping malls, rising rentals and public markets and so on.

In the case of mainland, it could be because of a large number of tourists from the mainland. Without addressing the capacity issue, the daily life of Hong Kong people has been affected because the place has become so crowded, so congested.

Is political reform also a reason for the anti-mainland sentiment?

Well, it could be a reason, but with that you have to [find] a way out in accordance with the Basic Law.

So I do feel that, and I do have some ideas on how we could do on both scores in order to bring society back to harmony and to treasure this very strong bond between Hong Kong and mainland China, and to benefit or to capitalise on the many opportunities offered to us under the mainland’s deepening of her economic reform and the opening up and the Belt and Road, and so on.

In business, actually I’ve been doing quite a few things without much publicity. It’s encouraging companies to support social enterprises, promoting what I call shared value. So businesses could actually do good things without just doing philanthropy. This traditional way of corporations giving back by doing philanthropy – that is, making a donation here and there and putting their names on this building and so on – is very old-fashioned. Well, they could continue to do it if they have money and they like to do it. But we should move on to getting the corporations involved in doing some of these socially responsible acts.

What do you think are the reasons for the rising call for independence?

You need a sociologist, political scientist to analyse that. I am not a very good student. It’s a very complex issue. But fortunately I think it’s only a very tiny percentage of people who harbour that sort of view, which is not supported, not condoned by the majority of Hong Kong people.

Watch: Carrie Lam enters chief executive race

On the March 26 poll

Even if you eventually win, what if your popularity lags behind?

Every contestant in an election always wants to win. That’s only natural ... I did say that public support is important – at least perception-wise, it’s important, because people will point the fingers: “OK, you got the votes from what they call a small-circle election, but you have not got the popular mandate.” So I will continue to work very hard to reach out to the people.

What is a respectable threshold of votes?

I don’t think there’s a threshold. Whoever gets 601 wins the election. But of course, to any candidates, the more the merrier.

Would you mind some possible nicknames?

People will come up with all sorts of nicknames, stigmatisation and labelling. I’ve been used to those things in my career and, more recently, during my election campaign.

Will a low margin make governing difficult?

It depends on how one governs this city. People would like to see results. I don’t think the people of Hong Kong, who are very sensible, very reasonable and very pragmatic, will rule out a CE simply on the basis that he or she does not get a large number of votes. They will watch how he or she performs, what he or she will say, especially in the initial period. That would give them the confidence this CE has the interest of Hong Kong very much at heart.

All but one of the city’s major developers are your nominators. Why is that?

Because they want a person who can propel Hong Kong forward. For many years, they have seen some of the things that we can do for Hong Kong, not necessarily for them to maximise their profits. But they’re very worried about Hong Kong coming to a standstill and losing its competitiveness. They have seen how I have worked for the good of Hong Kong as a whole ... So they know me and they have worked with me. They put their confidence and trust in me that I should lead Hong Kong to address some of the problems.

Do you think you’ll be indebted to the developers?

Not at all. I have been telling people that in writing this manifesto, I have not owed anything to anybody. There’s nothing I put in here because I need their votes. I’ll be very frank and very determined to say that. So when I fortunately become the next CE I’ll have [an] absolutely free hand In delivering what I believe in. Definitely not.

Is it sad that no single pan-democratic election committee member nominated you?

It’s not sad, it’s just reality, because at the very beginning, even well before the election of the election committee members, the pan-democratic camp, through some of their leaders, have already advocated that this time around they would use their votes to make sure that there is a competitive contest ... So I have no illusion that under that sort of strategy, I will be able to get any nominations from the pan-democratic EC members.

But I am pretty confident that I will get some votes from the pan-democratic EC members on the voting day, although I will continue to work on it.

From what subsectors, for example?

I don’t want to disclose it, otherwise they will shy away from giving me their support. But if you look at this manifesto, it has addressed some of the very pertinent issues that had been raised by EC members who belong to this big pan-democratic camp.

Watch: Carrie Lam presents her manifesto

On political reform

Is it unrealistic for Hong Kong people to ask Beijing to amend the framework?

Well, the whole process is interactive, I have to say ... I would say that at every stage of the political reform, the central authorities would definitely look at the situation of Hong Kong, both in terms of the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong on the one hand and their worries on the other. Ten years ago, nobody ever felt there would be this talk about independence of Hong Kong ... Of course the external environment changed as well. Nobody would envisage US politics to [be] like this. Nobody would envisage that the UK would leave the EU.

If the conditions for political reform are ripe, what modifications of Beijing’s 2014 framework would you like to see?

No, I don’t want to go into specifics because it’s only less than two years since we failed that package. It would not be very responsible for me to say that there are things that could be changed. But a package is a package. The NPCSC resolution is a resolution. That provides a framework ... You have a framework, you can stretch it out with a slightly different way of presenting the proposal to the people of Hong Kong.

Will the conditions appear in the next five years?

I don’t know. I’ll work very hard.

On governance

Your proposal for letting owners of subsidised housing rent out their properties and skip the current requirement of paying off the land premium is criticised for giving “double benefits” to them. What do you say?

There’s always one concern for one to do something innovative and unprecedented ... So I have a record of doing unprecedented things because I want to do things for Hong Kong. If we continue to do things the same way and the same way has proved to be inadequate to meet the people’s aspirations ... [I will] do things in a slightly different way and be less worried about the usual worries about double benefits and so on.

When you come to think about it, what’s the double benefit? If it achieves the overall social objective of making ownership more affordable, of injecting liquidity into the rental market, in maximising the use of [subsidised] flats which have not been fully utilised.

Is it difficult to draw a line when you decide to think out of the box and when you decide to follow the rules? For example, you have been criticised for skipping the usual consultation procedure in your handling of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

A: There’s no usual consultation for projects like this, I’m sorry. I have been following exactly the procedure and rules which allow the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority to change venues within the approved development plan. But I don’t think you want to go into that. I have a long story to tell. I just want to impress upon you that the Hong Kong Palace Museum is [a] godsend. It’s a wonderful project for Hong Kong. And I bear the responsibility. People dislike it, but I have done one big good thing for HK.

Coming back to your serious question, about how to draw a line – that’s why you need leadership. That’s why you need courageous leadership. Somebody is willing to take difficult decisions for Hong Kong based on evidence. I’ve been advocating in my new style of governance. Policy should be more evidence based. One way is to open up the data. So more people can come in to look at government data and come up with all sorts of ideas on how we could do things in a different way.