Can Hong Kong’s ‘iron lady’ Carrie Lam sell the Greater Bay Area to ordinary folk?
Alice Wu says that, after a year in office, Hong Kong’s first female chief executive has shown determination and ambition, but will need to explain to Hong Kong’s ‘have-nots’ how Greater Bay Area and belt and road integration plans are good for them before her plans are derailed and anti-mainland opposition intensifies
Hong Kong’s first female chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has just completed a year in office. It’s been quite a year for her, and it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Take, for example, the latest political wound inflicted by Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, of which the government is the largest shareholder. The MTR Corp’s rail link scandals will continue to have repercussions for the government far beyond our borders.
What an embarrassment it must have been to trumpet Hong Kong’s cross-border infrastructure internationally, as part of the sales pitch for the Greater Bay Area and “Belt and Road Initiative”. But Lam was undeterred, and did exactly that on her debut European tour.
She took the lead in selling the Greater Bay Area before her last-minute detour to a meeting with Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng before returning home to participate in last week’s third Belt and Road Summit.
Lam was sworn in on the same day President Xi Jinping watched on as she signed the framework agreement on the development of the Greater Bay Area, together with Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on, head of the National Development and Reform Commission He Lifeng, and governor of Guangdong province Ma Xingrui.
So, she well knows that taking the initiative would gain Beijing’s confidence and the political elbow room she needs. Her sustained focus on pushing hi-tech development has not gone unnoticed.
And, Lam’s timing to unveil new policies aimed at addressing the city’s worsening housing crisis was certainly no coincidence – coming at the 11th hour of her maiden year in office. Hong Kong’s housing crisis is so threatening that it can make or break political careers.
By detaching the pricing of government-subsidised housing from market rates, introducing a vacancy tax on newly built flats that remain unsold, and building affordable housing on sites originally for luxury homes, Lam is donning her “iron lady” persona – signalling her readiness to take on this city’s leviathan. But let’s hope Lam is also aware of her predecessor’s demise. Leung Chun-ying beat his chest but housing prices kept climbing, along with public dissatisfaction.
Lam’s blend of focus and determination, together with her signature genuine self-confidence, will be essential in this period since a national blueprint for the Greater Bay Area development has yet to be revealed.
There are also dark clouds on the horizon in the form of a China-US trade war. The strengths of iron ladies are arguably most apparent in challenging times, so we can pretty much count on Lam flexing her muscles in the coming years.
However, she needs to do much better at communicating with the Hong Kong public. Lam continues to leave the impression of being arrogant and out of touch.
Part of this is because all the big catchphrases, like “belt and road” and “Greater Bay Area”, haven’t been translated into terms relevant to the average Hongkonger. They are seen to benefit the haves, not the have-nots, aggravating social and political tensions.
As Lam pushes these grand initiatives, if her administration continues without explaining these initiatives in language that everyday folk can understand, it will only feed anti-mainland sentiment. Not truly articulating the benefits of economic collaboration in terms Hongkongers can relate to will create even stronger resistance.
When Lam was in Paris less than two weeks ago, she talked about how measures would help “make it easier for Hong Kong people to study, to work or even to buy flats in the Bay Area”. This vision was shared by her predecessor, who said at a June 6 Asia-Pacific Summit that the bay area plan makes it possible for “Hongkongers [to have] more affordable and more decent housing”.
Yet, most Hongkongers are simply not sold on these visions. And, without the support of the public, all Carrie Lam’s work may well come to naught.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA