Savvy Carrie Lam shows she knows her politics, as well as policy, in her maiden address
Alice Wu says the new chief executive outmanoeuvred her critics with the style and substance of her first policy address, and succeeded in distancing herself from her predecessor. Now she just needs to show she can deliver on the ‘hope’
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, in her maiden policy address, made sure we understand that she is serious about new beginnings. It is clear that Lam put a lot of thought into not only her address, but also where her predecessors have failed, evident by her going all-out to be different.
She was eager to show that she is more than just talk when it comes to differentiating herself from previous chief executives. Her speech was intentionally short ,as she opted to give us a summary, sparing us the pain of hearing her talk for hours about every policy initiative. To have a chief executive uninterested in hearing herself talk is, on its own, refreshing enough.
But it is more than Lam being accommodating to an audience with an ever-shrinking attention span. She has shown she is all about substance, too – so much so that if you’re truly serious about policies or, at least, are going to criticise her work, you’ll have to do your homework and read her unspoken words – the 60,000-word policy agenda is where the beef really is.
Lam has not been one to hide her mastery of policy details. Since her bid for office, she has shown that she knows the business of government more than other contenders. And, with this maiden address, Lam the bureaucrat and increasingly confident politician does shine through.
This policy address is her boldest move, so far, to differentiate herself from her immediate predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, for whom she served as No. 2.
She scrapped Leung’s plans to demolish the Wan Chai Sports Ground for the expansion of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and offered a much more attractive alternative: to make space by knocking down three major government buildings instead. However, just one day after her speech, Lam said that the sports ground would eventually be demolished.
She wasn’t saving a sports facility. She was saving herself from Leung, going out of her way to disagree with his choices. It is, for all intents and purposes, a political statement.
She is determined not to be “CY 2.0”, a label her critics have been trying to pin on her since her days as a candidate. And it cannot be made clearer than in her policy “fine print”. Her first policy bullet point, highlighted as a “new initiative”, is to “resolve as soon as possible those constitutional and legal issues pertinent to amending the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance to extend the scope of Sections 3 and 8 to cover the Chief Executive”.
This is one issue where Leung was persistently criticised over his inaction. This is Lam signalling that she, as a politician, is prepared to play hardball, and that there’s definitely no love lost.
Lam has learned more than a few things through all the years that she spent as a politician-understudy. She has shown she has more than a few ideas about reorienting how politics works under her watch. While she kept her critics busy studying the full version of her address, she was able to outmanoeuvre them in gaining back some control over the power plays at work.
She shied away from politically contentious issues like Article 23 national security legislation and restarting the political reform process, but squarely put the ball back in the court of “disrespectful” lawmakers – saying their behaviour was not conducive to creating the “good environment” needed to begin talks again.
One does not need to agree with her to see that she is refusing to be a “sitting duck” for the kind of political theatrics that have stolen the limelight after previous policy addresses. Her critics are going to have to work much harder to rain on this chief executive’s parade.
Whether she can lead her team and the civil service in delivering all the policies – and there are a lot – that she has outlined in her policy agenda, remains to be seen. Whether she can get the civil service on board is going to be the biggest challenge, and test of her political will, to date.
So, for now, there’s still a long way to go from all the “hope” before Lam actually delivers.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA