Can Hong Kong’s leader ever pull off a ‘Trump-Kim’ type reconciliation between the city’s political factions?
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has notched ‘quick policy wins’ in her first year in office amid sparkling economic numbers. But her promise to heal wounds in a divided society will take longer to realise
Before she was selected for office, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suffered the ignominy of being called CY 2.0. As the former chief secretary to then chief executive Leung Chun-ying, she was seen as a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat who could continue the policies of her unpopular boss.
One year on, few remember that label.
Thanks to a deft change in style and substance, Hong Kong’s fourth chief executive has survived her first year in office with ratings higher than her former boss. The city is less restive politically. Thorny issues and actors such as the pro-independence forces have been sidelined and all talk of electoral reform put firmly on hold. The economy is experiencing its lowest rate of unemployment and is on track to achieve 3 to 4 per cent growth this year.
Lam cannot take all the credit, her critics will say. There has been no “great reconciliation” between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps as her team had earlier touted.
Deep mistrust of the central government remains among sections of society. Hong Kong’s inability to focus on reforming the economy remains a key worry and rising housing prices a chief grouse.
Yet, even her critics will say the rancour of the CY years has subsided and more people are turning to the economy – with even the pan-democrats interested in finding out about the Greater Bay Area economic plans, for instance – rather than remaining stuck on irreconcilable political positions.
Lau Siu-kai, former chief of the government think-tank Central Policy Unit, said: “Carrie Lam has been doing a good job of not being CY. But it is an overstatement to say she has been able to achieve ‘great reconciliation’.
“If great reconciliation was achieved, we should have seen improving relations and closer cooperation between the pan-democrats and the pro-establishment camp as well,” said Lau, who is also vice-president of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank based in Beijing.
Raymond Mak Ka-chun, a governor at the middle-of-the-road political group Path of Democracy, echoed Lau’s view. “I don’t see there being any ‘great reconciliation’ strategy.”
And while Lam earned President Xi Jinping’s praise for a “good start”, it is too soon to declare her adept at balancing Beijing’s demands with Hongkongers’ aspirations.
“Largely, she has not been tested on that front,” Lau said.
“Beijing also does not want to put her in difficult situations. There has not been much pressure on her to, say, enact Article 23 of the Basic Law to make a national security law.
“Unlike CY, she doesn’t have to deal with political reforms either.”
In 2014, pro-democracy lawmakers vehemently opposed a political reform package backed by Beijing as being too restrictive. The package set off the 79-day Occupy sit-in in late September that year, opening up a political chasm in the city that has yet to close.
Initially, it looked like it could worsen. Two weeks after Lam took office, she had to tackle the fallout from a court ruling that disqualified four pan-democrats from the Legislative Council on the basis that they had taken their oaths improperly. Leung’s government had initiated proceedings against them, after the oaths of two others were earlier voided by Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
But Lau said Lam and her administration were clever enough to quickly change the narrative to focus on “several quick wins in policies”.
She won the endorsement from both camps for a HK$5 billion (US$641 million) increase in recurrent education expenditure, along with an additional HK$2 billion to fund quality education, such as giving schools more money to purchase teaching resources for children.
To honour her promise to “connect with the youth”, she set up a high-level Youth Development Commission and launched a self-nomination scheme for them to be on government advisory panels.
A Commission on Children has been set up. Her government has also pushed forward a plan to extend the statutory paternity leave from three to five days.
A Youth Development Commission member, Nixie Lam, also a Tsuen Wan district councillor, said: “If you try not to look at everything with politically coloured lens, Carrie Lam is an ‘action person’ and she can deliver.”
A vacancy tax on developers that hoard completed flats – which sources say is likely to be twice a home’s estimated annual rental value – could push more apartments into the market.
Asked if she was concerned about developers’ reactions, the chief executive replied: “Why do you care so much about how the developers see it? Why do you not care about the views of the public?”
She scored some populist points with the remark. But the leader of the opposition Civic Party, Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, pointed out Lam had yet to tackle head-on the controversial issue of land supply in the city, which has fuelled a housing shortage and home prices skyrocketing beyond middle-class affordability.
At the same time, the average waiting time for a public rental flat was 5.1 years as of March, up from 4.6 years the previous March.
Lam kicked the can down the road, Yeung argued, when she gave the job of looking at new land supply to a special task force. “She has handed over the land supply issue to [the chairman] Stanley Wong Yuen-fai so she can hide behind her desk and do nothing,” he said.
Balancing demands on both sides
In March, Lam raised eyebrows when she attended the anniversary banquet of the opposition Democratic Party and donated HK$30,000 out of her own pocket to them, a move captured on her official Instagram account with the over-the-top hashtag “great reconciliation”.
It backfired as critics – including her Cabinet member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee – accused her of buying goodwill.
Lam blamed a colleague managing her Instagram account for adding the hyped-up hashtag.
But well before the donation, Lam had made a show of embracing pan-democrats by appointing former opposition lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah to her cabinet, and former Democrat Law Chi-kwong as her labour and welfare minister.
Tong, formerly with the Civic Party, was to serve as a bridge between the government and the pan-democrats, a role he conceded he had failed in. But his fellow pan-democrats were partly at fault, he said, adding: “It takes two to tango. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Tong’s acceptance of Lam’s appointment also cost him politically, as some radicals branded him “a turncoat from the pan-democracy camp”.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said the government’s relations with the camp had improved this past year – only because things “dived to an extreme low during the CY era”.
“Whether it will continue improving or not will depend on Carrie Lam’s policies. It is not for us alone to determine,” Wu said.
Lam’s ability to balance Beijing’s encroaching influence over the city with Hongkongers’ interest in defending their rights, freedoms and way of life will be tested as her term progresses.
Earlier this month, the pro-establishment dominated Legislative Council passed a bill allowing, for the first time, mainland Chinese laws to be enforced in a Hong Kong terminus of a cross-border rail link. There was hardly any public outcry against the so-called co-location bill, though pan-democrat lawmakers railed against the legislation, warning it would deal a harsh blow to the city’s rule of law and the “one country, two systems” guiding blueprint.
Wu warned Lam’s “honeymoon period” would not continue if she used the co-location bill as encouragement to push ahead with the contentious national security bill as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Beijing has at times signalled its impatience at the lack of progress on the bill, which was shelved in 2003 after half a million Hongkongers took to the streets.
“It is understandable that the pro-democracy camp did not have an upper hand in opposing the joint-checkpoint proposal as some citizens might think the high-speed rail link would benefit them,” Wu said.
But Article 23 touched on the core values of Hongkongers, he said. “If Lam forcibly pushes ahead with the bill in the absence of any political reform, social grievances will fully unfold,” Wu warned.
Uniting a divided society
About five months into the top job, Lam revealed she took medication to control high blood pressure and only slept three to five hours a night, and even less when she was crafting her maiden policy address last October.
Earlier this year, when defending justice chief Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s failure to declare illegal structures on her property, Lam let on she too found it tough to juggle her personal life and career.
“It is possible to be too neglectful, too busy and too devoted to public service to forget one’s own private business ... Sometimes I am also so busy ... and have no time to handle my private issues.”
A Lam staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “She is sometimes very demanding and expects a quick response. I won’t say she is authoritarian, but she is very confident in her judgments and likes to take a very active part in the formulation and execution of a policy. I heard that life was much easier during CY’s time.”
A subordinate who wanted to remain anonymous said: “She is a person who could not bear wasting a minute in her life.”
The person said there were times Lam grumbled if she arrived too early at the Legislative Council, which is just steps away from her office. So her subordinates rehearsed and timed their boss’ walking route, to ensure she would always arrive on the dot for meetings.
While she can time her arrival with such precision, the year ahead is not as certain. The challenges of being the bridge to Beijing and also Hong Kong’s leader whom Hongkongers trust and respect remain. And the great reconciliation is still a work in progress.
Under Lam’s leadership, Tong was optimistic relations between the pan-democrats and Beijing could improve. After all, as he said: “Even Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un can sit together to talk.”