Carrie Lam needs Hong Kong people on her side if she is to do her job
Alice Wu says caught between her ‘friends’ in Beijing and her foes in Hong Kong, the city’s chief executive needs help to bridge the political divisions to get things done
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor probably didn’t expect to be granted a “honeymoon” period. Only six weeks into the job, the Hong Kong leader has been working hard: making trips to Singapore, Thailand and, most recently, Beijing, on top of getting new education subsidies passed at home.
She has dodged some potentially fatal political bullets, too. The first came as she was preparing for her trip to the capital.
Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, blasted the city’s pan-democrats in a magazine interview, and suggested that Hong Kong should enact national security legislation and introduce national education – two sharply divisive issues in Hong Kong. He inadvertently pulled the rug from under Lam’s efforts to mend the political rift. When pushed for a response, however, Lam said calmly that she respected the checks and balances inherent in Hong Kong’s political system. She barely wriggled out of that one.
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Then, at a meeting with the nation’s education minister Chen Baosheng, Lam was sideswiped by Chen’s “mansplaining”. This time, Lam’s response was disappointingly weak. Instead of pushing back at the assumption that she needed to be told what her job was and how to do it, she sidestepped it by saying education policy was not her forte. Lam’s image of being unafraid of taking on a fight took a beating.
With this sort of “help”, Lam is going to have to build a lot more credibility here at home. Her “friends” up north and her foes at home are exploiting the Beijing-Hong Kong mistrust and disconnect that she needs to overcome if she is to get the checkpoint co-location plan for the high-speed railway network off the ground.
Trust, or the lack of it, lies at the heart of most political issues Lam has to face, from political reform to national education. So Lam should be careful, now that she’s returned from Beijing, not to sound too hardline pushing the checkpoint plan. It will just contrast with how accommodating she was while there.
Of course, Lam is smart and knows how to use her political assets. Last week, a blog post by the widely respected Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, the former Monetary Authority chief who now advises her as a member of the Executive Council, made headlines. It criticised the previous governments (of which Lam was a part) for being too miserly in their fiscal approach. All Lam needed to do afterwards was say that she agreed. As a way of getting her fiscal policy off the ground, that was beautifully orchestrated.
Politics is about more than getting the work done. Indeed, it often gets in the way of getting things done.
There is one way Lam can further burnish her public image – by strengthening her connection with the people. We all remember her public relations faux pas as a chief executive candidate: a toilet paper hunt that revealed she did not know where to buy it, and a trip to the MTR that showed her struggling to use her Octopus card. She has to try to connect with the regular folks. Otherwise, her ambitious goals will remain elusive.
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Lam told the BBC in June, “To say that I am just a puppet, that I won this election because of pro-Beijing forces, is a failure to acknowledge what I have done in Hong Kong over the last 36 years for the people of Hong Kong.” As chief executive, it is what Lam is willing to do for the people over the next five years that matters. Being chief executive takes more than a civil service career. Perception matters and the world is watching.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA