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Carrie Lam

How Carrie Lam’s soft pink cheongsam signalled a new style in Hong Kong politics

Alice Wu says the new Hong Kong chief executive’s inaugural outfit was a striking political act and a nod to woman power, and the reconciliatory air of her first Legco appearance has brought hope of better days for a divided society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 9:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 July, 2017, 7:03pm

I could not ignore the dusty pink cheongsam and long white coat that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wore to her inauguration as chief executive, even as I struggled not to let appearances obstruct the person.

The outfit, by one of the most famous Hong Kong designers, was of course flattering, elegant and appropriate. Besides the fabrics and the pearl button on the mandarin collar, the colours made much more than a fashion statement. It was a striking political act. Lam wearing white, not known to be a Chinese colour for celebrations, is a nod to the global women’s suffrage movement, and Lam was following the tradition of, and adding to, growing “firsts” for women.

Lam’s wish to improve executive-legislative relations could not be more clear

She was definitely setting the tone with the dusty pink, and we’ve already seen that in her first week in office. Political prowess comes in many styles and Lam looks to have got it right. Softer doesn’t make her weak, and she demonstrated that in her first question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council. Lam chose to resume the practice of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, taking her place to the right of the Legco president, in stark contrast to her predecessor and last boss, Leung Chun-ying, whose stage would be set up directly in front. In this, she demonstrated her intention to walk and work side by side by with Legco. She did not need to assert her authority by placing herself front and centre. Giving Legco its due respect, Lam’s wish to improve executive-legislative relations could not be more clear. Adding to that is her intention to be present at Legco more frequently.

Watch: Carrie Lam chooses to stand to the right of Legco president

And credit must be given to the pan-democrats who stood up as she entered the chamber, showing not only to the Hong Kong people, but the central government as well, that they too can be respectful hosts. This is indeed indicative of political fresh air. We may be able to breathe again; the toxic political air of the past five years looks to have been lifted.

Political prowess comes in many styles, and Lam has got it right. Softer doesn’t make her weak

It is important not to take these simply as superficial gestures. It is, of course, very wise of Lam to start her term and first week by putting her campaign promise of injecting HK$5 billion a year into education into action. How could anyone object to spending more on education? Who would object to increasing the teacher-class ratio?

But Lam did more than that. She understands that timing, in politics, is everything. She has got education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, a member of the “opposition”, to “hope” that his colleagues in the Finance Committee will approve the funding before the summer break, so that the money becomes available for the next school year.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam doles out extra billions in education spending spree

The Civic Party’s Tanya Chan and Democrat Helena Wong Pik-wan have already made known their support for it. For the opposition to turn advocate for the government, on an issue-to-issue basis, is more than just a sign of healthy politics; the fact that it was almost unimaginable with the previous administration bears real and serious significance.

What a difference a week makes. A week ago, Legco was still considered dysfunctional, crippled by endless filibusters and disruptions. Lam inherited a most hostile political environment, the least room for political manoeuvre, and the most grievous state of dispiritedness in the community.

How Carrie Lam can boldly lead the change Hong Kong needs

She has proved she understands what it takes to be in politics – being in people’s faces, asserting power and authority, insisting on having a bully pulpit, and initiating political combat is not the only way, nor is it an effective way, to do politics.

It is refreshing to see Lam adopting a “softer” style that doesn’t take anything away from the ability or confidence she exudes. Hong Kong may well be able to look forward to better days.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA