Carrie Lam, the presumed next leader of Hong Kong, is no clone of divisive Leung Chun-ying

Gary Cheung says the former chief secretary just needs to bring back her inclusive leadership style that in the past has helped to defuse, or at least set out to defuse, tension in society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 8:49pm

The support of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and his sons for Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor could be the last nail in the coffin for her rival John Tsang Chun-wah’s campaign to be chief executive.

For weeks, there had been speculation that Li is a supporter of Tsang’s and that he and his sons may cast their vote for him in the secret ballot on Sunday to select Hong Kong’s next leader. People in favour of the former financial secretary had hoped that support from the Li family could encourage more pro-establishment electors to vote for the popular underdog as well.

That hope has now been dashed.

The Post has learned that National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang ( 張德江 ) last month successfully persuaded the Li family to vote for Lam, who is seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate.

This is a timely reminder that realpolitik reigns in the chief executive poll.

Some Tsang supporters believe President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) reticence on the matter so far may indicate Lam is just Zhang’s choice. But an understanding of Chinese politics suggests that no major decision like choosing Hong Kong’s leader could be made by anybody except Xi, who is now the most powerful Communist Party leader since Mao Zedong (毛澤東).

Nevertheless, while Beijing’s all-out effort to support Lam makes clear that she is the “anointed” candidate, Hongkongers should not suppose that their views carry no weight in the eyes of Beijing. Since the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March last year, Beijing has been monitoring public opinion in Hong Kong on likely candidates to be the next chief executive. Noting the opposition to Leung Chun-ying, mainland officials tasked with gathering intelligence were particularly interested in how Hongkongers viewed Tsang and Lam.

Despite Lam’s nickname ‘CY 2.0’, I am optimistic she would make a better chief executive than Leung in terms of bridging social divides

Leung’s announcement that he would not seek re-election is a testament to Beijing’s conciliatory approach towards Hong Kong. Hongkongers’ overwhelming opposition to Leung and the reluctance of a substantial number of pro-establishment figures to back him for a second term were factors that contributed to Beijing’s decision to look for an alternative.

The central government’s preference for Lam stems from its desire for a chief executive who has the capability and commitment to tackle thorny issues and, to a lesser extent, someone relatively acceptable to Hongkongers. As Beijing expects the next chief executive to have the ability to handle the complicated situation in Hong Kong in the next few years, it has reservations about Tsang’s laid-back leadership style and his tendency to avoid controversial issues.

Despite Lam’s nickname “CY 2.0”, I am reasonably optimistic that she would make a better chief executive than Leung in terms of bridging social divides – if she could restore her inclusive leadership style and problem-solving skills evident before the failed electoral reform in 2015.

Watch: Carrie Lam talks about why she met with Queen’s Pier protesters in 2007, whether she is a pro-business, and how she unwinds

In July 2007, Lam, then the secretary for development, took the bold move to join a debate with activists at a public forum at Queen’s Pier to persuade the angry crowd to disperse and allow the work to demolish the pier to start. Her presence at that critical moment helped calm the crowds and defuse the tension.

Further to her credit, Lam liaised with middlemen, like University of Hong Kong academic Joseph Chan Cho-wai and former president of the University of Hong Kong students’ union Gloria Chang Wan-ki, to set up dialogue with student leaders at the forefront of the Occupy Central protests in 2014.

At the televised dialogue with student leaders on October 21, Lam told them the government would submit a report to the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to reflect public sentiment since the protests began on September 28. The government would also consider setting up a multi-party platform for talks on constitutional development beyond 2017, she said. But the talks eventually failed to reap rewards because the gap between the two sides was just too wide to be bridged.

Middlemen tell why dialogue to end Hong Kong’s Occupy protests were doomed to failure

One of Lam’s urgent tasks after landing the top job – if she is selected, as expected – will be to set herself apart from Leung by demonstrating a more inclusive governing style.

I hope Lam means what she says and shows more flexibility in dealing with the pan-democrats after she becomes chief executive

In an interview with online media last Thursday, Lam told the programme host and former legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing that she was interested in the model of the eight-party coalition that Lau spearheaded in 2001 to push for policies that enjoy support from across the political aisle. The coalition successfully forced the government of the day to agree to measures such as a waiver of property rates and quarantine of residents in a block in Amoy Gardens in Kowloon Bay, at the height of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.

I hope Lam means what she says and shows more flexibility in dealing with the pan-democrats after she becomes chief executive.

This is my last column for the Post, where I have worked for nearly 17 years. As someone who has been observing Hong Kong politics for more than two decades, it pains me to witness the vicious cycle precipitated by Beijing’s growing assertiveness on Hong Kong affairs and the resultant backlashes by Hongkongers in recent years.

China’s might and Hong Kong’s autonomy: can Carrie Lam find a balance between the two?

I believe the persistent expression of views through peaceful means is more forceful and effective in pushing change than hurling bricks in the streets. Deliberate challenges to Beijing’s bottom line, like advocating Hong Kong independence and using abusive language during any oath-taking ceremony, only do a disservice to the fight for democracy.

Yet, as I told some Beijing officials and mainland experts on Hong Kong, Beijing badly needs to create room for moderates in Hong Kong to ensure the sustainability of the “one country, two systems” framework and break the vicious cycle.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor