Palace Museum saga tells us how Carrie Lam will govern

January 26, 2017 12:23
Carrie Lam (center) defends her handling of the Hong Kong Palace Museum project at a recent press conference. Photo: Xinhua

Carrie Lam, a well-meaning government bureaucrat, has become a wet blanket after her masters in Beijing decided to present a gleaming gift to the city.

Hong Kong people would have greeted the proposed Hong Kong Palace Museum with jubilation if only Lam and her subordinates at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority had observed procedural justice in handling the matter, from conception and site selection to commission of the lead designer.

Sadly, everything was conducted in such a stealthy fashion and Hongkongers were the last to know about the project, after Lam signed a memorandum of understanding with the mainland party.

The public and media reaction to the clandestine process is unsurprising: the public ought to have been consulted in the first place.

But Lam thinks she did nothing wrong; in fact, she takes pride in the way she was able to keep it away from the glare of media.

“Our effort at confidentiality is flawless,” Lam told a Legislative Council panel in a rather contemptuous tone.

Yet the following day, amid the public uproar, Lam swiftly changed her stance and insisted the entire process was “transparent and open to scrutiny”.

Museum welcome, but not the controversy

Procedural justice is at the core of Hong Kong’s long-established values to guarantee impartiality and fairness.

It can hardly ensure the kind of efficiency seen in authoritarian regimes but it can prevent graft and backroom deals, and gain public confidence and trust in governance.

The secrecy of the talks between Lam and her team and the Beijing donor of imperial artifacts as well as the decision to skip open tendering to appoint Rocco Yim as the project’s lead architect violate the principle of due process that Hong Kong society holds dear.

Suspicions heightened after media discovered that Yim was the designer of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s home on the Peak, a luxurious villa found to have multiple unauthorized works that dented Leung’s credibility even before he assumed office in 2012. Yim reportedly designed many of the additional structures and changes in the villa.

Is hiring Yim for the Palace Museum a favor returned to the local designer?

All these look dubious and spoil much of the excitement over the treasures from the Forbidden City.

The controversy is far from over and I wonder if Beijing cadres will misinterpret the local sentiment and think that Hongkongers are just unappreciative of the generous endowment.

The museum is intended to be part of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's 20th anniversary celebrations, but Lam has effectively besmirched Beijing’s goodwill.

Hongkongers are not sycophants but they do appreciate cultural events and exchanges. However, Lam has turned it into a bitter controversy; she must pay for her silly blunders.

Now we learned that during Lam’s visit to Beijing in September 2015, the curator of the Beijing Palace Museum, likely at the behest of the top leadership, proposed to set up a branch in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon.

Enthusiastically, Lam concurred and instructed the Cultural District Authority which she chairs to commence the preparatory study, although seeking public opinion on the matter never crossed her mind.

She refused to apologize, defending her actions – including handpicking Yim – as “a special arrangement to expedite the process”.

She went on to say that “being in the government for over three decades, I know too well about all these procedures and rules”.

“Special arrangements for special matters” has long been a CY Leung refrain, and obviously, his pugnacious style has rubbed off on Lam.

Autocracy may be described this way: an official rates himself above all others and likes to circumvent rules and procedures if they are in his way.

Lam has become a living example of this.

If our officials dispense with due process, which sometimes involves lengthy but necessary debates and consultation, who should bear the responsibility if a hastily implemented plan goes wrong?

Lam always says she acts for the well-being of Hong Kong. She is highly conceited and deaf to objections and contrary views.

The Palace Museum fiasco tells us that Lam can today ignore the public when there is a political agenda to serve, and perhaps tomorrow she and her underlings can also brush aside all checks and balances when they have some private pockets to fill.

It also gives us an idea of how Lam will govern if she beats all other contenders in the race to the city’s top job.

This article is an excerpt of two separate columns that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 10 and 11. 

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 1, 2 中文版]

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Rocco Yim (right), the museum's lead designer, and West Kowloon Cultural District Authority CEO Duncan Pescod field questions from the media during a recent press conference. Photo: HKEJ
A giant banner of the Goddess of Democracy is unfurled near a Palace Museum advertisement in Central. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in front of the Beijing Palace Museum. Photo: HKEJ
A media representative at an information booth about the proposed museum. The project sparked protests against what some critics say is cultural brainwashing and kowtowing to Beijing. Photo: AFP

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal