Carrie Lam

How Carrie Lam can boldly lead the change Hong Kong needs

Philip Bowring says the incoming chief executive will have a daunting task changing the perception that she is part of the status quo, but there are several courageous ways she may achieve just that

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 10:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 8:30pm

Chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor faces a daunting task convincing the public that she is a leader for Hong Kong, and not merely a superbureaucrat who faithfully executes the policies of the bigwigs in Beijing and the liaison office apparatchiks. But it can be done. It requires just one attribute: boldness.

Let us never hear from her lips the word “consensus”, the classic escape for politicians and civil servants for whom change is too hard or too upsetting for their friends.

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Healing society’s wounds can never be achieved by sweet and meaningless talk. It has to start with the notion that change is needed and will upset the status quo, which Lam is seen to represent. The fact that she is having to rely for her ministers primarily on those already deeply embedded in the system will make that very difficult.

But, again, it also gives her the opportunity to show she is a leader who can force badly needed change; that not only is she more than “first among equals” but, like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, can stamp her own more radical ideas on groups reluctant to see their own privileges threatened.

If Lam wants to develop better relations with the pan-democrats, she isunlikely to be able to do that by offering democratic development, unless Beijing realises that its overreaction to the “independence” talk has been counterproductive.

She might even contrive national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law that leaves ample room for free speech. But she can, if she has the guts, certainly use pan-democrat votes to isolate the vested interests in the Legislative Council on which the government too often relies.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying started with what seemed at the time a willingness to override entrenched interests. But, apart from a largely futile exercise to fiddle with stamp duties to hold down property prices, he has done nothing significant.

Some of these issues can even be presented as “patriotic”, addressing negative legacies of the colonial era. These start with the most sensitive of all – land. A significant contributor to the land problem has been the small-house policy.

Far from being a heritage right, the policy was a short-sighted move to buy off rural opposition to new town development. Now it is a sexist relic which enriches a few. It is a testimony to the corrupting power of Heung Yee Kuk privileges over the administration. Lam should tell the kuk and its hangers-on in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department that she doesn’t want or need their votes.

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Likewise, the issue of brownfield sites in the New Territories is testimony to the unnatural influence of both the kuk and the big corporate landlords. Scandals such as the Wang Chau development, where villages are sacrificed to the corporate brownfield owners, have been all too typical of a government in the pocket of big business.

The Wang Chau project also pointed to the lack of a proper paper trail of decision-making in government, with records either not made or conveniently lost.

In principle, Lam supports a records and archives law. It would add to transparency and help the Independent Commission Against Corruption. But will she push for it?

The taxi business is another whose problems lie even further back in colonial history than the small-house policy. Selling of perpetual licences was always a lousy idea and has been compounded by a refusal to increase the number of urban ones. With or without Uber and its equivalents, the taxi policy has been a disgrace for years, enriching licence holders, some with close relations to government. The result is ageing, underpaid and aggressive drivers, poor service, and the like.

Yet the government just tinkers with the problem, issuing a few new superior licences and arresting Uber drivers. So what if the licence speculators and rentier lose out? Are they your constituency, Ms Lam?

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The government has already just lost a chance to bring real competition to the power industry. Highly profitable monopoly and oligopoly capitalism so dominates Hong Kong’s domestic economy that it squeezes the profits and enterprise of the rest.

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Competition seems a dirty word to many in government, and the concentration of economic power in Hong Kong makes South Korea’s chaebol seem modest. Meanwhile, Hong Kong lags decades behind advanced cities on air pollution, waste recycling, water conservation, and so on. The reasons are obvious. Lam must do something. Some actions will be unpopular initially but presenting them as leading Hong Kong to a more advanced status can be a strong selling point.

Common sense should also guide Lam in another direction, which would be both popular and productive. An ageing society with a slowly growing population inevitably faces health and pension demands. Similarly, it does not need ever more 1960s-style pouring of concrete into infrastructure projects with little economic return.

In short, Hong Kong can be made to feel better about itself despite the pressures from Beijing – if the government set itself some challenging goals for a change.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator