Is Carrie Lam using Palace Museum to run for chief executive?

December 28, 2016 13:24
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (seated, left) and Palace Museum director Dr. Shan Jixiang (seated, right) with other officials at a ceremony marking the Hong Kong Palace Museum deal in Beijing on Dec. 23. Photo: GovHK

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam maintained her silence about her political plans for two weeks after her immediate boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, announced his decision not to seek a second term in office. 

Then, in a visit to the Chinese capital last week, or just before the Christmas holiday, Hong Kong's No. 2 official appeared to have kicked off her campaign by announcing a deal to build the city's own version of Beijing's Palace Museum at the West Kowloon arts hub.

She had probably thought her announcement would be met with jubilation in Hong Kong, but instead, many criticized her for the secrecy that surrounded the deal.

After CY Leung dropped out of the chief executive race earlier this month, Lam changed her mind about retiring from public service at the end of her term and said she was not ruling out running for the city's top job.

For the pro-CY Leung camp and several Beijing loyalists, Lam is the best choice for the leadership post next to CY himself – in view of her tough stance against the localists and fierce loyalty to Beijing. She would continue Leung's governing style in Hong Kong.

But what could be the opening salvo of her campaign, the Palace Museum deal, did not sit well with the public, who questioned the timing of the announcement.

They are also asking: Why did she keep such a major change in the land use of the West Kowloon Cultural District a secret to the public before announcing the deal? Are there any conditions behind the deal?

The project, which will showcase the treasures of imperial China from the original museum in Beijing, is intended to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China next year.

The Jockey Club has agreed to fund the HK$3.5 billion project that will have a total floor area of 30,000 square meters.

Because the Jockey Club will bankroll the project, the government can bypass the Legislative Council as far as the budget for the construction of the museum is concerned.

All of the spending related to the project will be outside of the legislators' scrutiny. Well, not really.

The government will still need funding to run the museum, and that would be recurring expense that would have to be included in the city's budget and, since it involved taxpayers' money, would need Legco's approval.

While Lam has yet to declare her entry into the chief executive race, she is the highest government official responsible for the West Kowloon Cultural District development.

There is no doubt that the project has a political angle. It is no secret that Beijing aims to stop the growth of the Hong Kong independence mindset, especially among the youth, and the best way to do that is to instill in them the love of Chinese history and culture.

The government did propose to amend the Chinese History curriculum to focus more on the country's modern history, particularly the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.

The Palace Museum project could be part of Beijing's efforts to promote the glorious achievements of the ruling Communist Party over the past six decades.

The aim is to shed the negative image of the party among the Hong Kong youth, its authoritarian rule and poor human rights record.

From Beijing's perspective, the establishment of the Palace Museum in Hong Kong will help develop Hong Kong into a Chinese international city, rather than just simply an international city.

Such an objective is the reason Beijing has included Hong Kong in its five-year economic blueprints and enabled the city to play a role in the planning of the "one belt, one road" initiative.

Beijing wants to remind Hong Kong people that their city is part of China and therefore subject to China's rules and plans.

And in Hong Kong's relationship with the motherland, the "one country" part of the governing principle is more important than "two systems".

But from Hong Kong's perspective, what Lam has done by forging the Palace Museum deal is destroy the policymaking procedures that have been in place and working well for the city for decades.

The project bypassed the normal procedures and kept those who are supposed to be involved in it unaware of what's going on until it was officially announced last week.

Some political observers said the project is precedent-setting since Beijing can now initiate projects and programs in collaboration with top government officials without having to pass through Legco and the normal channels simply by using non-taxpayers' money.

Now Beijing can simply forget public consultation or the pan-democrats' opposition and just push through with its policies and programs.

West Kowloon is a key point in Beijing's plans to further integrate Hong Kong with the mainland as it is a terminus of the cross-border high-speed railway.

Building a Palace Museum next to the rail station will bind Hong Kong and China not only physically but also, infrastructure-wise, culturally and spiritually. So there goes Hong Kong's uniqueness. 

And it would be a testament to Lam's loyalty to Beijing if the project finds realization.

An achievement big enough for her to win the city's top job.

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EJ Insight writer