Hong Kong chief executive-elect Carrie Lam’s balancing act

The crucial issue for many is how the chief executive-elect will navigate her relationship with Beijing’s liaison office in the city while heeding popular views

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 11:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 11:29pm

As Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vows to lead with a “new style of governance”, political watchers are wondering how she will recalibrate the relationship between the chief executive and the mainland.

While few dispute that the chief executive is ultimately answerable to the central government, the more immediate question is whether she can pursue the principle of “one country, two systems” without shifting further towards “one country”.

The starting point, for many, is how she will navigate her relationship with Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

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Analysts in the city and across the border think it will not be easy for Lam, who was elected Hong Kong’s next leader on Sunday, given how assiduously the liaison office had gone out of its way to help her win office. But some point out she can reshape the relationship and assert her authority.

Although Lam framed her victory as the fruit of her own labour and that of her team, it is an open secret that the 777 votes she won from Election Committee members were partly the result of behind-the-scenes lobbying by the liaison office.

As first reported by the Post, state leader Zhang Dejiang visited Shenzhen to tell the pro-establishment camp and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing on another occasion that Lam was Beijing’s preferred choice.

Such blessing from Beijing had “structurally determined” the power base of the new leader, who would find it difficult to maintain distance from the liaison office, Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said.

“Lam has no other patronage. The business sector and some tycoons turned to her from her rival because of Beijing,” he said. “It’s not easy for her to shake off the label CY 2.0.”

Lam was given the nickname by opponents who were wary she would follow the hardline approach of unpopular incumbent Leung Chun-ying, who was perceived as being too close to the liaison office.

Leung got off on the wrong foot with the public when he chose to visit the office the day after he was elected in 2012.

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During her campaign, Lam stressed repeatedly she was in a passive position and she had no way to ask the liaison office to stop lobbying – even as she admitted its intervention was “counter-productive”.

In the press conference she gave after her election victory, she also demonstrated sensitivity when asked if she would visit the office the next day like Leung did.

Visiting the agency was only “part of the protocol” of the chief executive-elect, Lam said, along with visits to other offices including those of the incumbent chief executive, chief justice and Legislative Council president. Yesterday, she visited the latter three and toured several neighbourhoods to thank supporters. She did not visit any mainland offices.

Such prioritising was a “clever” move on Lam’s part, said Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

“Perception matters,” he said. “She should also avoid being belittled by the liaison office. One would recall how Leung Chun-ying behaved when he made a hospital visit with then deputy director of the liaison office Li Gang after the Lamma ferry tragedy.”

He was referring to the incident in 2012, when Leung accompanied Li to the hospital where dozens of victims of the ferry crash were sent. Li spoke about how the office would help while Leung stood aside.

Lau also suggested Lam should not, like Leung’s administration, rely on the liaison office in lobbying lawmakers’ support for government bills. He said Leung’s administration had failed to engage their allies in the Legislative Council at an early stage and heed their views for amendments, and in turn, it had to resort to the liaison office for help.

These steps by Lam would ensure she gave herself more room to impress upon Hongkongers she could stand on her own in governing the city when it came to protecting the “two systems” part of the Hongkong-mainland relationship.

Tian Feilong, a law professor with Beihang University in Beijing, agreed Lam had to walk a tight rope.

“It’s the hardest thing for every chief executive to balance Beijing’s requirements and public opinion in Hong Kong, as Beijing is more proactively governing Hong Kong and merging the two economies,” he said.

Lam should conduct a transparent consultation for cross-border cooperation projects like the high-speed railway which involve a controversial checkpoint arrangement at the terminal in West Kowloon, where mainland officers could enforce mainland laws, Tian said.

New People’s Party lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, one of those who received calls from the liaison office about backing Lam, struck a more optimistic tone on Lam’s ability to keep a distance from the office.

He believed that Beijing’s hand in the election was only due to its need to ensure Lam would win the race, and Beijing would adopt a “hands-off” approach towards Hong Kong under the new administration.

“If Beijing wants to keep the hardline approach, why did [incumbent] Leung Chun-ying have to go? Beijing cannot afford Hong Kong to be split further. If a large crowd once again marches on July 1, how can Lam run the new administration?”