Carrie Lam wins Hong Kong’s top job, but can she deliver?

City’s first female chief executive-elect inherits host of problems from politically divided society to skyrocketing housing costs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2017, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2017, 11:28pm

The votes have been tallied, and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has won by a landslide. But even as congratulatory cheers ring out for Hong Kong’s first female chief executive-elect, the city’s next leader has little time to celebrate, given the plethora of problems she has inherited, ranging from a politically divided society to skyrocketing housing costs and widening income inequality.

Lam, 59, won 777 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee, made up of mostly Beijing-loyalists. The former chief secretary beat former finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who took 365 and 21 votes respectively.

Lam was widely seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate while Tsang was said to have lacked the central government’s full trust despite his high popularity. As for Woo, winning the race was seen as mission impossible.

Now that she is in the driver’s seat, Lam is unlikely to enjoy any post-election honeymoon period as questions have hung over her entire campaign on whether she can draw support from across the political spectrum, with none of the 326 pan-democrats wanting to give her any of their votes.

On Sunday morning, the brief election period began with election committee members casting their votes between 9am and 11am at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.

Dubbed “CY 2.0” by pan-democrats because she was expected to adopt the same hardline policies pursued by incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying, Lam found herself unable to escape questions over her lack of popularity as she constantly trailed arch-rival Tsang in opinion polls.

But before she became CY 2.0, Lam had a different nickname – the “good fighter” – thanks to her no-nonsense approach to her work and controversial issues.

A former civil servant who had worked with her recalled how she displayed her iciness at her first meeting with unit heads – when she was handed a sheet of paper to write down what she wanted to drink, she calmly raised the note and tore it apart.

Though Lam faces an uphill struggle in terms of winning the hearts and minds of Hongkongers, her practicality and decades of civil service experience could stand her in good stead when it comes to actual problem solving.

Lam, who turns 60 in May, joined the British colonial government in 1980 after graduating from the University of Hong Kong, where she majored in sociology.

In the 1990s, she spent almost seven years in the finance bureau working on budget planning and expenditure control.

In 2000, she was made social welfare director. As welfare chief, she introduced several controversial reforms, such as tightening the social security assistance scheme.

To some, however, Lam has a tender side too. A citizen named “Uncle Fook” wrote a letter about his hardship to Lam when she was director of social welfare. She helped him move into a housing unit for the elderly. Since then, she has kept in touch with him and visits him regularly.

During the Sars outbreak in 2003, Lam, together with three other senior civil servants in their personal capacity, set up a fund to help the long-term education needs of children whose parents had died from the disease.

Lam was appointed as permanent secretary for housing, planning and lands in 2003 and was posted to head the government trade office in London the following year. In 2006, she returned to Hong Kong to take up the position as permanent secretary for home affairs.

In 2007, she was appointed by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as secretary for development.

She became chief secretary in Leung’s administration in 2012.

Lam had earlier denied any ambition to contest the top post, but she made a U-turn on December 10 last year and said she would “reconsider” running for the job – less than 24 hours after Leung’s shock announcement that he had decided not to seek a second term.

On January 12, she resigned as the chief secretary and ended her 36-year civil service career. Four days later, with Beijing’s endorsement of her resignation, she declared her candidacy for the leadership race.

The transition from civil servant to chief executive candidate was a difficult one. Weeks before she quit as chief secretary, Lam stepped into a controversy over a project to build Hong Kong’s version of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District. She was accused of bypassing proper procedures to reach a deal with Beijing, and heavily criticised for not holding a public consultation.

As Lam’s campaign kicked off, she was ridiculed for gaffes in public – from not knowing how to use an Octopus card on the MTR to being unsure of where to buy toilet paper.

Her official Facebook page belatedly opened some three weeks into the campaign and was quickly flooded with negative comments.

Lam suggested that the online slights were orchestrated by her political foes. At an election debate, she likened the attacks on her to “white terror”.

Even a Valentine’s Day “love letter” posted on her Facebook page from her media-shy husband – mathematician Professor Lam Siu-por – became the subject of ridicule. The couple married in 1984 and have two sons.

The professor had expressed his wish for his wife to be elected and “contribute to the implementation of one ‘country, two systems’”.

Despite the ups and downs in her civil service career and her electioneering missteps, Beijing, believing she was a person it could trust, did not waver in its support for her.

With the votes tallied and Lam at the city’s helm, the question that remains is – can she deliver?