19 September 2019
Observers suspect that the reason why Carrie Lam has turned into a hardliner is because she is eyeing a shot at the chief executive post in the 2017 election. Photo: HKEJ
Observers suspect that the reason why Carrie Lam has turned into a hardliner is because she is eyeing a shot at the chief executive post in the 2017 election. Photo: HKEJ

Why is Carrie Lam behaving like a hardliner lately?

Having once vowed that she will retire from public life completely after she serves out her current term, and that she will never run for the city’s top job, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor seems to have done a sudden about-face in recent months.

The senior official has made a series of politically provocative remarks that have hit the headlines on different occasions.

The reason why Lam has suddenly changed from a moderate into a hardliner and become increasingly belligerent and confrontational is as simple as it gets: because her political ambition is rearing its ugly head and she is obviously setting her sights on the chief executive election in 2017.

To curry favor with Beijing and win its blessing, there is simply no better way than talking tough and behaving tough.

Anyone who still believes that Lam remains the humble civil servant of the past must be either naïve or forgetful. One might remember that Leung Chun-ying had also once vowed that he would never run for the top job. After all, they are just politicians and politicians just lie through their teeth all the time.

In fact it has become increasingly apparent that both Lam and her ex-colleague, the former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, are geared up for the CE office and working aggressively to eliminate any prospect for Leung Chun-ying’s re-election.

As a master of political maneuvers, the only advantage that CY still has over other CE hopefuls is probably his tough stance on the pro-democracy movement, his hard-handedness against the opposition camp, and his eagerness to transfer interests to Chinese state-run enterprises.

In order to gain the favor of her Beijing bosses, Secretary Lam must prove that she is also good at these things, and can even outstrip Leung. Hence, the aggressive moves and hardline rhetoric in recent months.

By talking tough and acting tough, what Lam has been doing is basically pledging allegiance to Beijing in public and proclaiming that she is both capable of and ready to replace Leung.

To say that Lam has been acting more and more like an egomaniac and that her arrogance is spinning out of control is not an overstatement.

Recently, at a charity event, Lam said in her keynote speech that those who insisted on doing righteous work often face criticism and misunderstanding, and then went on to say she believes a place has already been reserved for her in heaven because of all the right things she has done during her lifetime. What bloody nerve! Even the Pope, or Jesus himself, wouldn’t probably have dared to say that “a place has already been reserved for me in heaven”.

Meanwhile, Lam has also proved that she is as good as her immediate superior in colluding with big businesses and pleasing mainland enterprises. For example, recently she accepted a donation, on behalf of the government, from four contractors who are involved in the water-lead contamination scandal that is still plaguing several public housing estates.

Lam justified the acceptance of the donation, saying it was offered as “a token of their concern for the people who have been affected by the incident, and that their generosity should by no means be interpreted as claiming responsibility for what happened”.

As Lam has in effect pardoned the contractors, who used banned and toxic building materials, by accepting their so-called “donation”, it constitutes an act of collusion with big business in broad daylight. And her recent dismissal of calls for amending the existing Prevention of Bribery Ordinance to make it applicable to the chief executive only further indicates how desperate she is to please her Beijing bosses.

It seems CY is getting increasingly edgy in face of the political onslaughts mounted by Lam and other CE hopefuls, and is starting to behave oddly in recent days.

An example of that is his move to walk out suddenly from a Policy Address consultation meeting with lawmakers last week, which caught his subordinates completely off guard, after legislator Leung Kwok-hung had demanded the chief executive’s resignation.

Not long ago rumor had it that the incumbent leader might not be allowed to serve out his term. But many just shrugged of the talk. Now, judging from what’s been going on lately, I think it’s time for the public to take this rumor more seriously.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist