Can a ‘very confident’ Carrie Lam save her legacy in Hong Kong?

HONG KONG – Students sat quietly while soldiers walked goose into Hong Kong high school auditorium and hoisted a Chinese flag. The MCs spoke Mandarin, the language of mainland China, rather than Cantonese, the city’s predominant language. Then Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s CEO, took the podium to pay tribute to the importance of patriotism in the city’s youth.

It was Mrs Lam’s fourth visit to a school in recent weeks – a striking counter for a leader who had barely set foot on campus for two years. When anti-government protests engulfed the city in 2019, young people were among the most devoted participants, with high school students boycott of classes and formation of human shackles.

But now, as the scene this month at the school, Pui Kiu, made clear, things had changed: The pro-Chinese side – and by extension, Mrs Lam – was back in the lead. While a Hong Kong cliché has long claimed that the CEO serves two gentlemen, Beijing and the Hong Kong people, the protests in 2019 and the ensuing crisis crystallized that only one really mattered.

With that clarity, Mrs Lam, 64, lately appears to be a woman who has been revived, nothing like the leader who, at the height of the protests, disappeared from sight for days.

She has set an ambitious vision to “completely looseHong Kong’s housing problem, by building more than 900,000 units on the city’s largely undeveloped northern outskirts. She visited the city of Wuhan this month to strengthen Hong Kong’s economic and cultural ties to the mainland. She has given lengthy media interviews and smilingly dismissed concerns that the city will be crushed by Beijing.

“I’m very confident in Hong Kong,” she said at an awards ceremony last month. “I hope I was 30 years younger so I could start contributing to Hong Kong and benefit from a much better Hong Kong for a longer period of time.”

Mrs Lam has avoided questions about whether she will seek another term in March, and her office declined to make her available for an interview. But observers say her behavior points to a woman trying five more years in power.

Draw is obvious. If she leaves the office now, she will be remembered as that most unpopular CEO in the history of Hong Kong, whose groping response to a popular uprising initiated one drastic rollback of the city’s civil liberties of Beijing, a dive for Hong Kong’s global stature and one emigration of residents. Few in even the pro-Beijing camp are willing to defend her.

But if Beijing allows her another term, she could try to rehabilitate her legacy by tackling Hong Kong’s housing shortages, a problem that has hampered any leader before her, and speeding up integration with the mainland, which some argue would lift the city’s economy. No former CEO has completed two terms – certainly an enticing challenge for Mrs Lam, a self-proclaimed perfectionist.

Even Mrs Lam’s critics acknowledge that she is a fiercely competent administrator who may well be able to see through the housing and employment policies she has outlined. Perhaps more importantly, Beijing’s political cleansing has wiped out almost all opposition. On Sunday, Hong Kong will hold its first legislative election since Beijing redesigned the system in the spring only to allow government-approved candidates to run.

More in doubt is Mrs Lam’s ability to convince Hong Kongers that Beijing’s vision is actually better, and for whom. While Beijing claims that economic gains will heal Hong Kong’s social divisions and that closer ties to the mainland will promote natural patriotism, the pro-democracy camp insists that nothing will get better without the restoration of political rights.

That may be why, despite all her rhetoric about the future, Mrs Lam has also focused on reworking the past – especially what Beijing meant when it promised Hong Kong, a former British colony, semi-autonomy.

Mrs Lam was once an advocate for the direct election of the CEO. (Hong Kong’s CEO is currently being elected by a 1,500-member committee in a vote overseen by Beijing.) Last month, she said it was “wrong” to think that Beijing “owes” Hong Kong residents universal suffrage, even though it is fixed. out as a goal in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Ms. Lamb’s transformation was a “great irony,” said Jasper Tsang, a founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party. “After the protests in 2019, her job now is to try to obliterate what we all thought before – including herself.”

For most of Mrs. Lam’s career, she advertised herself as a more moderate figure, committed to Beijing but open to compromise.

She rose to the top job in 2017 to succeed Leung Chun-ying, a loyalist in Beijing whose hard line of pro-democracy protests in 2014 made him deeply unpopular. Mrs Lam presented herself as an effective workhorse – more administrator than politician. She talked about her time as headmistress at her Catholic high school for all girls, where she cried on the rare occasion that she did not place at the top of her class. Her official biography listed all 20 government posts she held before becoming CEO.

She also leaned into her reputation as a dealer who had led government negotiations with student leaders during the protests in 2014. She seemed comfortable with Hong Kong’s traditionally close relationship with the West when she once talked about wanting to retire with her husband and two sons in the UK.

One of her earliest actions as CEO was to appoint former opposition leaders to her cabinet. In March 2018, she participated in a fundraiser for the Democratic Party and donated nearly $ 4,000 – the first time a top executive had publicly given to an opposition party.

“In the beginning, she tried to be more of a unifying figure,” said Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “All parties really tried their best to heal the division of society.”

Mrs Lam never expected the outrage of the setback to her 2019 proposal to allow extradition to mainland China. Public demonstrations, which started in response to the bill, erupted into month-long condemnations of Beijing’s major writing.

If Mrs. Lam at the beginning of her term of office had seemed to make it impossible to serve two gentlemen, it proved untenable. In June 2020, after losing patience with the Hong Kong Government’s response, the central government lost bypassed Mrs Lam’s administration to impose a pervasive security law.

In the following months, dozens of opposition leaders were arrested, a pro-democracy newspaper was forced to close and the United States government sanctioned Mrs Lam.

Still, Beijing’s intervention would prove to be a lifeline for her. There was no longer any question as to whether the CEO responded to Beijing or the Hong Kong people. Now Mrs. Lam was just going to play along.

“There are all sorts of irony in life,” she said in one most recent interview with the South China Morning Post about the protests. “You thought it was the end of the world, and suddenly it is not. That was the beginning of a bright future. “

Mrs Lam’s rhetoric now reflects the Chinese Communist Party, with its mix of harsh condemnation and bureaucratic jargon. At press conferences, she sniffs at the West’s “so-called democracy.” In her annual political speech this year, she highlighted the Communist Party’s authority over Hong Kong affairs, unlike previous speeches where she did not mention the party.

Charles Ho, a pro-Beijing tycoon who has criticized Mrs Lam’s handling of the protests said she would have been fired or demoted if she was a mainland official. But under the Security Act, Ms. Lam had worked hard to earn Beijing’s good will back, he said.

“When she gives speeches, she thanks the central government or mentions Xi,” Mr Ho said, referring to Xi Jinping, China’s leader. “She learned to please.”

Future debates about Mrs Lam’s legacy will in part revolve around the question of how many choices she had in her destiny. Was she a willing servant of the party’s quest to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms? Or did she do the best she could against Beijing’s authoritarianism?

Either way, Mrs Lam seems to be enjoying the new situation. In July, for example, when she withdrew from a campaign promise to extend the anti-bribery clauses to cover the CEO, she explained that the leader’s responsibility was to Beijing.

“She is, so to speak, elevated above the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.” she said.

Ms. Lam has been liberated by her full embrace of Beijing, said Allan Zeman, a real estate developer and advisor to Ms. Lam. “You can not please everyone,” he said. “She has her priorities right now.”

Nowhere has her confidence been clearer than in her proposal to build a “northern metropolis” across the border from the Chinese city of Shenzhen, replacing what is currently a patchwork of cities and industrial areas with a high-tech hub that would houses 2.5 million people. According to Mrs Lam, the project would ease the housing crisis and bind the city to the mainland in one.

Similar proposals have stalled for years due to opposition from villagers and environmentalists. But Mrs Lam said it was no longer a problem because the Security Act had restored “social order.”

Her pitch might work. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers, often seen as belligerent by central government opinion, have published editorials praising Mrs Lam’s recent speeches. No other top executive candidates have emerged, which may signal approval from Beijing, said Willy Lam, a political scholar in Hong Kong.

“There are a lot of people who are willing to bend over backwards to please Beijing,” he said. But Ms Lam “has a credible track record in using the civil service to achieve specific goals imposed by Beijing.”

In fact, Mrs Lam increasingly seems to have been relegated to anticipating – or running to keep up with – the demands of the central government.

In the fall, officials from the central liaison office, Beijing’s arm in Hong Kong, flew out of the city to visit thousands of low-income residents in a much-publicized demonstration of sympathy for their living conditions. Mrs Lam appeared to be taken by surprise: She admitted to reporters that she “did not realize”The extent of their prevalence until she read about it in the newspaper.

One week after these visits, Mrs. Lam herself came to several low-income households.

Mrs. Lam seems, despite all her new bravura, to be aware of how flimsy her apparent political resurrection is. Her most recent public appearances have been tight-lipped. In August, she held her first town hall in two years With 90 out of 106 participants hand-picked by the government.

Mrs Lam’s visit to Pui Kiu this month was similarly checked. The school is known for being pro-Beijing. After Mrs. Lam spoke, she presented the plaques to donors and smiled with each for a few seconds. She oversaw the opening of the school’s gym and posed for photos behind a series of stationary bikes.

She did not speak to any students. Then she went to a car nearby and disappeared inside.

Austin ramzy and Joy Dong contributed with reporting.

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