Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam said late last week that she is having problems in putting together her ministerial team that will take up the reins of the government from July 1.
The news isn’t too surprising given the fractious political environment in the city and the misgivings that many people harbor about the incoming leader.
Still, Lam’s public admission of the difficulties is curious to say the least, and makes us wonder if there is some deep calculation behind her words.
By suggesting that she isn’t finding it easy to get the desired personnel for her cabinet, is Lam trying to tamp down expectations with regard to her team?
Or is she just playing a game to keep the public as well senior government officials guessing as to her cabinet choices?
Well, on the face of it, we have reason to believe that Lam’s words have more do with the first scenario and that she realizes that fulfilling her post-election pledge of uniting society will be tough.
Over the weekend, Lam and her campaign office head Bernard Chan expressed concern about the difficulties they are facing in getting the right people for Lam’s cabinet.
Lam said she even had nightmares about not finding enough personnel to fill her cabinet by the time she takes up office in July.
Now, why exactly is she facing difficulties in finding her cabinet members?
Lam had said that she hopes to recruit from across the political spectrum, including from the opposition camp.
The only criteria was respect for the Basic Law and the “One Country Two Systems” principle, she said, laying a red line.
Meanwhile, Lam urged political parties from the opposition to open the door for future cooperation if she brings some of their members into her cabinet.
The comments came as media reports have speculated that some moderate figures from the opposition camp could be roped into the incoming cabinet.
One such name being bandied about is Democratic Party member and University of Hong Kong professor Law Chi-kwong.
While Lam’s camp may be floating trial balloons, what it seems to be forgetting is the fact that there is a deep level of mistrust between the pro-Beijing groups and non-establishment figures in the city.
In fact, no member from the opposition camp had nominated Lam or voted for her in the election last month, as they feel Lam won’t be very different from the outgoing chief executive, CY Leung.
People remember that Lam, while serving as chief secretary in the Leung government, had on many occasions refused to engage with the opposition camp on some contentious matters.
Given this record, Lam’s offer now of an olive branch to the opposition camp doesn’t seem too credible.
As both sides never reached any consensus on the political roadmap during the election campaign, Lam’s conciliatory gesture after her victory rings hollow.
The CE-elect may be preparing the ground to accuse the opposition camp of non-cooperation, blaming them for potential failures of her government.
She can tell the public that she had tried to re-unite society by appointing opposition politicians in her cabinet, but that they had refused her call, sowing the seeds for continued political stalemate.
Besides the aim of managing people’s expectations, Lam may be also playing a political trick to split the already fragile pan-democratic camp.
If a pan-democrat is successfully roped into the cabinet, it will put the person’s political party and also the entire opposition camp into a quandary as to whether they should endorse the candidate.
The Democratic Party has already made it clear that members should resign first before joining the government.
All in all, Lam’s pledge to work toward reuniting different political groups could be just empty rhetoric, given that she hasn’t given us any hope that she will re-launch political reforms process.
Given the current environment, politicians who are committed to the fight for electoral reforms and true democracy will find it difficult to accept cabinet positions from Lam.
If they are seen softening their stand on critical issues, the opposition figures will risk alienating their supporters.
Apart from opposition politicians, Lam is also having a problem with some senior government officials who have indicated that they wouldn’t like to continue under the incoming administration for various reasons.
Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Raymond Tam, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and Secretary for Education Eddie Ng are reportedly keen to quit the “hot kitchen” after their current terms end.
Their exits mean Lam is confronted with a task of filling top-level positions in the government’s 13 policy bureaus.
During the final stage of the CE election campaign in March, there had been much talk in the city that several veteran administrative officers would resign to avoid working with Lam, as they were not comfortable with her working style.
Constitutional Affairs Secretary Tam has frankly stated that he had a different pace with Lam when they were handling the political reform in 2015, and that it is something that prompted him to take a step back when it came to considering whether he should stay in the government or not.
The remarks offer us more insight as to why Lam is having problems in forming her cabinet.
Beijing may believe that a chief executive with civil servant background will find it easier to manage government officials. But what it forgets is that most Hong Kong civil servants want to focus on just one thing: following due procedures on all decisions and ensuring fairplay and justice.
Things worked out well for the city in the past as authorities, for the most part, followed internal guidelines and rules.
But under CY Leung’ helm, the situation changed as the CE put politics above everything else and tried to bypass existing rules as he sought to curry favor with Beijing.
The planned Forbidden City Museum project, which was approved in unseemly haste without discussions in the Legco, was just one instance of abuse of power by the Executive.
It was Lam, as Leung’s No. 1 official, who steamrolled the controversial project, under which Hong Kong would have its own version of Beijing’s famed Palace Museum.
While some may justify such interventions by citing the need for speedy project implementation, they seem to be forgetting one basic fact: bypassing normal procedures and systems will only hurt Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city backed by rule of law and a professional civil service.
As Lam has indicated that she intends to carry forward Leung’s agenda and his controversial policies, it is not surprising that there is no big rush for top positions in her administration.
Bringing in different figures and infusing the cabinet will new vigor and talent will be easier said than done — as Lam herself has acknowledged.
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