‘Good fighter’ plus ‘peacemaker’, but can Carrie Lam hold up the sky?
From a passionate student of society to Hong Kong’s top female government official, her possible entry into the chief executive race has brought mixed reactions
Many in Hong Kong would associate Chairman Mao’s famous proclamation – “women hold up half the sky” – with the city’s top female government official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
Now that her boss Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has decided not to run for re-election, this may be an excellent opportunity for Lam to step up to the plate and prove that she can hold up more than half the sky.
Lam’s surprise announcement on Saturday that she would “reconsider” running for the top job less than 24 hours after Leung’s bow out – a surprise U-turn given she had earlier repeatedly quashed speculation of her chief executive ambition – left many questioning her sincerity.
The bigger question though is: can she mend social rifts, steer Hong Kong away from countless political challenges, and create a more cohesive society?
Many believe one of Lam’s biggest assets is her institutional knowledge and her ability to work the system, both from the top down and bottom up, as well as her intrinsic quality of pragmatism, despite her perceivably conservative personality and demeanour as a civil servant.
The city has produced many outstanding female leaders over the years. Each of them made their mark and served the public in various capacities both inside and outside of the government before and after the 1997 handover.
There was the ever so eloquent Lydia Dunn, who became the first female senior unofficial member of the Executive Council.
After 1997, we saw the transformation of former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, dubbed “the conscience of Hong Kong”.
These leading ladies all had their moments of brilliance – critical junctures in time when they had the opportunity to shape public opinion, leaving a lasting impression and becoming iconic in the process.
Lam is no stranger to these defining moments, having been dispatched by bosses to handle some sizzling hot issues. It wasn’t on just one occasion, but at least two separate instances, and by two different chief executives.
Lam, who turns 60 next year, joined the government straight after graduating from the University of Hong Kong where she was an active member of the student union.
In university, Lam was an activist who fought to bring social issues to the forefront in order to help the downtrodden.
Her involvement and passion to campaign against social ills grew to a point where she decided to switch her degree from social work to sociology, in order to gain an insight into the society she lived in and wanted to help.
That was the young Lam – passionate and proactive. Fast forward to nearly four decades later, and that passion still burns bright but the issues that she feels passionate about might have changed, as has the social and political landscape.
During her early government career, Lam served in various bureaus and departments, spending almost seven years in the finance bureau in the 1990s. It was a smooth sailing path, but nothing exhilarating that one would bat an eyelid at, until her appointment as director of social welfare in August 2000, when she was given a HK$30 billion welfare portfolio to manage.
From that point, she entered the spotlight and became more well-known to the public.
In July 2007, she was called upon by then leader Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to quite literally hold up the falling sky over the Queen’s Pier controversy – angry conservationists had occupied the historic pier in protest over government plans to demolish it for reclamation.
Lam, who was the development secretary at the time, was sent down to the pier to attend a public forum, in a bid to persuade the angry crowd to disperse and allow work to start.
Known for her directness and penchant for shooting from the hip, Lam met fuming protesters and firmly repeated the government’s stance that keeping the pier was not an option.
The demolition went ahead eventually but it was obvious that her presence at that critical moment helped to calm the crowds and defuse the tension. She later said that she had to tell protesters the facts because she “would not give the people false hope”.
Her handling of the pier conflict earned her a reputation as a “good fighter”, “peacemaker” and “combatant”, and these labels have stuck.
“She’s the firefighter with the hose. She knows how to put out fires,” Allan Zeman, legendary founder of Lan Kwai Fong, said. Zeman worked with Lam when he was the chairman of Ocean Park and also oversaw the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.
In July 2012, Lam was roped in by Leung to be his number two – chief secretary of administration.
During the Occupy Central movement in September 2014, which was a dramatic attempt to push for genuine universal suffrage for the chief executive election, she was sent by Leung to negotiate with protesters.
That was the second occasion when Lam was tasked to hold up the sky, this time, for an embattled boss. She had previously been one of the city’s most popular politicians – known as someone who got things done – until she joined the Leung administration.
The task she faced at the Occupy movement was of a different magnitude compared to previous controversies, and aside from her once untarnished reputation and popularity taking a beating, she was perceived to be an advocate of Beijing’s agenda by members of the public.
Despite this setback, Lam emerged from the fracas as the face of the government and the one who could be counted on to address important and often controversial issues while her boss appeared to remain out of sight and out of the public mind.
The impression of Lam as a skilled peacemaker has now been etched into the minds of the public, and despite her pro-establishment image, many people believe she is earnest.
With her impressive track record in government and her ability to handle hot political issues, her rise to the city’s top job could be seen by most as a natural progression.
Lam had repeatedly brushed off rumours of her intention to run for the top job saying it was a waste of time and that she had promised her husband she would retire from public service at the end of her term.
Now that she’s had a change of heart, some believe she has what it takes for the top post.
“I think her biggest accomplishment is her ability to handle controversial matters, as reflected by the projects during her previous role as the secretary for development and the political reform last year.
“Regardless of how these turned out, she apparently did not suffer much in terms of her image and popularity,” said Dr Mathew Wong Yee-hang, assistant professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.
“As a veteran government official, of course her biggest strength would be her knowledge and experience with the bureaucracy. She should be able to bring back the culture of government efficiency, instead of an emphasis on political agenda,” Wong added.
“Her weakness is that in the past few years under C.Y. Leung, it was apparent that at times she sacrificed some core values of Hong Kong and the civil service to the orders of the chief executive. This makes people question her ability to protect those values in the future,” Wong added.
“But I think she has a good chance. We don’t know if John Tsang Chun-wah has Beijing’s blessings and
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is still a highly controversial candidate. If Carrie decides to go ahead then it can be believed that she has Beijing’s backing.”
On whether she will be able to make a contribution to Hong Kong in a way that her predecessor was unable to, Wong added: “I think so. Leung’s governing style is way too divisive for any reasonable successor to follow.”
Some critics however say that Lam’s U-turn to run for the top job after Leung’s announcement was a calculated move. Others also claim she has already been planning the move for a while, particularly since her family recently moved from Britain to Beijing.
But Dr Li Pang-kwong, director of the public governance programme at Lingnan University, did not think Lam flip-flopped on her potential candidacy.
“She was merely making an adjustment due to changing circumstances, so I don’t think many people will hold that against her. But her biggest challenge now is to come up with solid plans to show us how she will help Hong Kong heal and lead the city forward as one cohesive entity.”
He believed Lam had a pretty good chance if she could overcome the last hurdle of getting enough public support.
“It’s obvious that she will get the backing from Beijing, so the only hurdle is how much support she will get from the public. She really needs to win the hearts and minds of the people. She needs to convince them that she can lead once given the job because she will have more room to manoeuvre politically and that she can compromise and help both sides meet halfway on contentious political issues.”
“That means she really has to develop her soft power and her ability to be more politically supple because with our society being so divisive at the moment there really isn’t a lot of wiggle room,” Li added.
Few doubt Lam has strong proven skills at governing. But her critics, especially those from the pro-democracy camp, said there were still many things unknown about her, and as for the things that are known – these do not necessarily make for a good leader.
Former legislator and ex-leader of the Civic Party, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee was blunt and direct: “After five years of Leung, Hong Kong has become very divisive, we now need somebody who can help the city heal and come together, and I don’t think she is capable of doing that.”
On Lam being lauded as a “good fighter”, Eu was sceptical, saying: “It really depends on which side she is fighting for; if she is fighting for the people, of course it would be a good thing, but if she is fighting against public interest, that would be suppression.”
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit was not impressed with Lam either because “she doesn’t seem capable of finishing things she started.”
“During my 12 years as a legislator I can’t recall any one thing she initiated that was carried through and brought to fruition,” he said.
He cited two examples: the clearing of illegal building structures in the New Territories in 2012, which came to an abrupt end, and getting rid of the small-house policy which gives indigenous male villagers in the New Territories the right to build a house close to their ancestral homes.
Another red flag, Leong said, was Lam’s closeness to the chief executive and her hardline behaviour.
“C.Y. is someone most people in Hong Kong loathe or hate, so being so close to him in order to score some points and enhance her chances as a chief executive contender is definitely a big minus for her.”
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s government and public administration department speculated that Lam had been widely regarded as an alternative for Leung.
“If Beijing authorities want to adjust their policies in Hong Kong and want to have reconciliation of all political forces, especially with the democrats, John Tsang would be a good candidate for chief executive. But if they want to uphold the original political line ... and they want a more competent candidate with better popularity, Lam may be a Plan B.”
Lam herself is accustomed to controversy, having weathered many political storms. There was a recent one which came as the result of a speech she made at a public event last year.
In that speech Lam had invoked a biblical reference, referring to the eight Beatitudes: “Some said that the eighth blessing applies very well to me – ‘blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ – there is already a place reserved for me in heaven.”
Critics said Lam sounded arrogant, but there may be another interpretation to her words. The place reserved for her may be less celestial, but somewhere more humanly attainable. For now, only heaven knows.
Additional reporting by Jessie Lau