29 February 2020
Hong Kong’s new leader Carrie Lam attends a Question and Answer session at the Legislative Council on July 5. Photo: Reuters
Hong Kong’s new leader Carrie Lam attends a Question and Answer session at the Legislative Council on July 5. Photo: Reuters

A good first week but what about the other 259 to come?

Carrie Lam has got off to a good start in her first week in office as Chief Executive, but then again all her predecessors, even including the deeply unpopular Leung Chun-ying, assumed office with favorable poll ratings.

So, one week is hardly sufficient to make a substantive assessment of the new Lam administration. However, even at this early stage, it is possible to deduce her strategic thinking, and it is a hell of a lot smarter than Leung’s way of conducting business.

Leung, too, imagined that if he could be seen giving priority to so-called livelihood issues, the public would be more willing to embrace other policies that were way more controversial. However he was in perpetual struggle mode and so could not bring himself to cooperate with people he viewed as being enemies.

Lam has started out with an important symbolic move, which was to abandon Leung’s practice of standing in front of the Legco president when addressing the chamber. This has been accompanied by a declaration of intent to re-open Civic Square outside the Legco building as a gesture towards ending the isolation of government. Obviously this gesture needs to be made real, otherwise it will prove to be worse than hollow.

Another wise, and frankly low-cost, gesture has been her assurance to draw up plans for including the Chief Executive within the scope of anti-bribery laws. This really is a no-brainer and could only be opposed by an official with real personal concerns here. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions as to why previous administrations were so reluctant to act on this matter.

Lam is also moving fast to tackle some other issues in a more acceptable manner as seen in the way she is approaching educational reforms, with indications that she is actually prepared to listen to educationalists and incorporate their ideas into government policy. Top-down policymaking, the only form of policymaking known to her predecessors, simply did not work and she appears to have drawn the obvious conclusion.

In general it seems that, unlike Leung, who was even prepared to sacrifice progress on simple spending allocations by insisting that controversial issues were settled first, Lam has indicated that she is ready not to score political points here and can therefore be expected to make progress on the do-able before moving onto matters that are more controversial.

She has also outlined ways of stepping up interaction with lawmakers, that, hopefully, will replace the highly confrontational and entirely non-productive set-piece quarterly Q&A sessions in Legco.

In summary she seems to be pursuing a policy of getting things done, reaching out to government opponents and prioritizing the settlement of some important livelihood issues that were stalled by the previous administration.

However, before getting carried away with an excessive optimism, it needs to be stressed that Lam’s real scope for independent action is severely constrained by the highly assertive hand of the central government that no longer even pretends that the slogan ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’ has any meaning.

She can be under no illusion that she owes her ‘election’ to the efforts of the central government, through its hyperactive Liaison Office. Moreover the visit of President Xi Jinping has underlined the subservience of the HKSAR government, coupled with threats of severe consequences if certain lines are crossed.

There cannot be a scintilla of doubt that Beijing expects this administration to both enact tough anti-subversion legislation derived from Article 23 of the Basic Law, and that it wants patriotic education to be rammed down the throats of school children.

There are ways of handling both these issues that do not necessarily require full-scale confrontation but it remains to be seen whether Beijing will permit Lam to seek the path of compromise.

In this respect it is worth noting the chilling reminder of the perils of compromise recently delivered by Zhou Nan, Beijing’s point man in Hong Kong at the time of the handover. Approvingly quoting the remarks of Mao Zedong he said, “we must uphold a clear-cut stance …unity gained with compromise dies quickly”.

It remains to be seen whether Lam will be brave enough to even attempt the effort of seeking a compromise on these matters. The current evidence is that she will not and that Beijing will be pursuing a very hardline on what it sees as key ‘national’ issues.

The central government is also in no mood to compromise over democratic reform and Lam has already strongly hinted that she will not even try to make progress in this area.

So, the time bombs that litter her job have already been laid, and others will undoubtedly arise. Lam’s predecessors all left office far more unpopular than when they came in; so who’s to say that she will not follow suit?

Lam can however quickly choose to make another commitment, which will emphasize that she is not merely CY Mark II. Unlike him she can promise not to spend practically every week scuttling across the border for this, that and the other. In other words Hong Kong’s new leader can choose to actually spend most of her time in Hong Kong…it’s not a big ask.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author