26 October 2016
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's No. 2 official, has roughly 17 months in office before she retires in 2017. Can she be a chief secretary for the people of Hong Kong and leave a political legacy that the city will remember? Photo: HKEJ
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's No. 2 official, has roughly 17 months in office before she retires in 2017. Can she be a chief secretary for the people of Hong Kong and leave a political legacy that the city will remember? Photo: HKEJ

Can Carrie Lam make Hongkongers proud of her before she retires?

In a recent interview with three Beijing-friendly Hong Kong newspapers, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she had promised her husband she would not remain in the government after her term ends next year.

Some still remember that in early 2012, Lam, then the secretary for development, said she would prefer to “spend more time with my two sons studying in the United Kingdom”.

Yet half a year later, she joined Leung Chun-ying’s cabinet and became the second-most senior official in Hong Kong.

Leung told Time magazine in an interview in June 2012, after his election as chief executive, that he could have lived and worked in Britain if he hadn’t decided to run for the top post, as his children were all studying there.

Today, his remarks in the interview about Hongkongers’ distrust in the government will strike many as ironic:

“What is the most challenging issue facing the Hong Kong government? Disengagement with the people.

“People are disenfranchised because they don’t vote, they are disengaged because we don’t talk to them, and we don’t listen, not directly.

“There is a sense of being disowned, and therefore, there is a deep sense of distrust between the people and the government, or by the people of government.

“I want to bridge the gap and I want to re-engage with the people.” 

Now, more than three years into his term, has the government, under his leadership, become more trustworthy to Hongkongers?

Is the crux of the issue, “disengagement with the people” in his own words, getting better or getting worse?

Lam said in her interview that her main duty is to assist and collaborate with the chief executive, and though occasionally they may have had different perspectives on some matters, their cooperation has been seamless.

She then blamed the entire democratic bloc for the stalemate in governing, leaving the impression that the administration, rather than judging on the facts, sees all pan-democrats as a roadblock.

All the controversial issues in the past could have been settled by voting, Lam said, but now the middle-of-the-road parties choose to connive with the four radical troublemakers (Leung Kwok-hung, Raymond Wong Yuk-man, Albert Chan Wai-yip and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen) in the Legislative Council to obstruct the government.

Lam said the only way out for the paralyzed legislature is a clear warning shout from voters, but “the general public seems not to be bothered”.

I wonder if radical democrats are the one and only reason for all these problems, be it the estrangement of society – young people in particular — toward the government, Hongkongers’ waning recognition of themselves as Chinese, or an electorate apathetic about a malfunctioning Legco.

Is it really that simple? Or is it merely a politically safe and correct answer to gloss over the true culprits?

Let me suggest a more likely answer, as can be seen in the ongoing tussle over the copyright amendment bill.

Lam blasted democratic lawmakers for playing hooky from Legco to force the premature termination of meetings.

“Debating and passing bills are the duties of each and every lawmaker, as the monthly remuneration for each Legco member is over HK$90,000, with annual entertainment and travelling reimbursement of HK$200,000, and they are also entitled to an end-of-service gratuity of HK$600,000,” she said.

I might have been the first to point this out.

When serving as the secretary for the civil service, I once proposed that Legco should put in place punitive regulations to deduct part of the remuneration of members who fail to attend meetings or cause a lack of a quorum.

Back then, my advice was unheeded.

But this time, one has to admit what the democrats have been doing is quite an arduous job.

First of all, they have to pick the right timing to create the chance of a meeting failing because of the lack of a quorum.

This is not so easy, bearing in mind that the 43-strong pro-establishment camp can, as a whole, easily negate the opposite side’s strategy.

The quorum for Legco is half of its 70 members, which means that meetings can go on with just 35 members in the chamber.

It is true that the democrats have been doing more than just demanding quorum calls: many of them have been filibustering the copyright bill in its final stages.

To do that, they have to speak non-stop and cannot repeat their remarks, otherwise the Legco president has the right to stop them.

Quite opposite to Lam’s rebukes, taxpayers and voters who support a revision of the bill would think the democrats have been conscientious in carrying out their duty as legislators.

As regards lawmakers’ pay, I wonder if the administration would dare conduct a survey on whether Hongkongers agree that the performance of our senior public servants matches the handsome remuneration they take home.

If most voters see eye to eye with Lam, then the democratic bloc is doomed to lose its status as a critical minority in the September Legco elections.

If that happens, the next legislature will be more efficient in endorsing government bills.

The reason the democrats are pulling all the stops to block the bill suggests it’s their judgment that the number of Hongkongers on their side far exceeds those who are in favor of passing the bill.

As for the silent, nonchalant remainder, they generally do not have a good impression of the pro-establishment lawmakers or the government, either.

Leung said three years ago that “they are disengaged because we don’t talk to them, and we don’t listen, not directly”.

How much has his administration listened to the people on widely disputed issues like this?

Nevertheless, what worries Hongkongers most is hardly the stalled copyright bill but rather the serial renditions of Hong Kong booksellers to the mainland and how that crisis will evolve.

Leung has failed to soothe our jitters.

In her remaining 17 months in office, can Lam help the chief executive safeguard our rights, freedoms and core values?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 27.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Lam blames the pan-democrats for paralyzing the legislature. Photo: VOA

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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