When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is sworn in as our new chief executive on July 1, her message will be to bring harmony back to a bitterly divided Hong Kong. She told me in a TV interview she hopes to at least partly achieve that in her first 100 days. But in politics, dreams always get swallowed up by reality. Every new political leader starts by vowing to deliver the promises they made during their election campaign. And in almost every case, reality soon bites and they take a hard fall.
US President Donald Trump pledged to deliver all his campaign promises in his first 100 days in the White House. He delivered almost none. Predecessor Barack Obama fought a bitter partisan battle to get his signature campaign promise of health care through Congress. It took him two years to achieve. He succeeded only because his Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress at the time.
On July 1, we will not see the first page of Hong Kong harmony being written. Instead, the old book of division will very much be on display. One part of Hong Kong society will be taking to the streets for the annual July 1 protest march. Another part of society will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with China. President Xi Jinping’s expected visit to mark the anniversary will doubtless be marred by protests by radicals groups. Tens of thousands of police will be on duty to keep the peace.
The images Hong Kong people and the world will see will, therefore, be of division rather than the harmony Lam hopes for. Disharmony is actually tightening its grip on Hong Kong with Lam’s inauguration just about a month away. Opposition legislators are readying an attempt to formally impeach outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying over the UGL controversy. And they will also try to impeach DAB legislator Holden Chow Ho-ding whom they accuse of colluding with Leung to change the scope of the Legislative Council’s UGL investigation.
They know they don’t have the votes to succeed in their impeachment attempts and the one targeting Leung will become meaningless anyway when he leaves office on July 1. But the opposition fully intends to keep the UGL investigation going even after Leung’s departure. Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting told me in a TV interview that harmony cannot supersede an investigation into what the opposition believes is an impeachable offense by Leung.
No society can have total harmony. It is impossible in free societies. In societies like North Korea, harmony is an illusion forced on the people by a ruthless leader. All that free societies can hope for is partial harmony by finding ways to unite people on divisive issues. As we all know, the most divisive issue in Hong Kong is democratic reforms. And as we all know, we have tried time and again and failed time and again to find common ground on this issue.
Lam has made clear many times she will revisit the issue only when the political climate becomes more favorable. But as I have said before, unless there is a sea change in the way opposing political factors think, the climate can never become more favorable to again touch this hot potato. A sea change is not possible, given the political realities we have in Hong Kong.
The political reality we must live with is genuine democracy versus democracy with Chinese characteristics. This is the root of our societal division. Since the two are so incompatible, and since the two sides in our societal divide so believe they are right, a sea change in thinking can only be a pipe dream.
Putting political reforms aside is not even a Band-Aid solution in healing our divided society. Reforms will remain the dominant factor in our political life whether we put it aside or not. It will continue to divide our society even if Lam doesn’t formally revisit the issue. She hopes to unite Hong Kong by shifting focus away from reforms to livelihood issues such as education and housing. She means well and I hope she will succeed. I have interviewed her several times on TV and found her to be confident, passionate, and most importantly, someone who has become more willing to listen.
But the hard reality is that we have become so divided for so long, it has almost become a way of life. Just take housing as an example. Homes have become totally unaffordable for ordinary Hong Kong people. Our housing market now only serves investors and capital flight from the mainland. Thousands of families live in tiny subdivided flats. The wait for public housing stretches into years.
Rents too have shot through the roof. The building where I live is being redeveloped. I have spent several weeks looking for a flat with a rent I can afford. But the flats I have seen and the rents the landlords demand have helped me understand even more why Hong Kong society has become so angry, unhappy, and divided.
Logic dictates that society should unite to solve the very urgent issue of housing. Yet, when the government proposed examining just the fringes of a country park for possible land to build homes for the elderly and those in need of public housing, the issue quickly turned political with opinion split along the same lines that now divide our society. The so-called establishment camp backed the proposal while the opposition criticized it. Some even accused Leung Chun-ying of secretly colluding with developers. We see the divisions along the same lines on the issue of education.
If even housing and education issues cannot unite society, what real hope is there for Lam to bring harmony to Hong Kong by putting aside political reforms? The best we can hope for is that since she has a different personality from Leung, we will see less rancor in our society. Leung is a combative leader. We can see that with his ceaseless attacks against legislator Kenneth Leung Kai-cheong over the UGL issue. I don’t totally fault the chief executive for being combative. He has endured insults from the opposition for five years now. He’s just giving as good as he gets.
Lam is determined but not combative. Maybe she can pull off a minor miracle by charming the opposition enough with her sincerity so we can at least enjoy a period of calm if not harmony. Her first 100 days will show if she can pull off this miracle.
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