Carrie Lam’s quandary: Honeymoon or no honeymoon

March 31, 2017 08:00
The opposition has made clear it wants genuine democracy to be a top priority for Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam. Photo: HKEJ

Now that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been selected as our next chief executive, Hong Kong people must decide if they want to start a new chapter in dealing with the difficult issue of our divisive politics or stay stuck in the old one.

A new chapter offers a clean page. People can decide what they want to put in it. History has already recorded what’s in the old chapter. Every page is filled with anger, animosity and acrimony.

The rancorous tug-of-war between the so-called opposition camp and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, backed by the so-called establishment camp and the central government, has split society as never before.

Do we want another five years of that or do we want a fresh start?

Without a doubt, the root cause of the deep split in our society is the battle over political reforms.

The central government’s Aug. 31, 2014 reform framework, which allowed a restrictive form of "one person, one vote", triggered an angry rejection from the opposition which labeled it fake democracy. That led to the unprecedented 79-day Occupy protest and its offshoot, the Mong Kok riots.

Should the new chief executive revisit political reforms in the coming five years in the hope it will heal our divided society? Or should Lam put the highly contentious issue on the backburner to focus on healing our societal divide through improving the lives of the people and regaining Hong Kong’s competitive edge, which we forfeited by spending so much of our time and energy on the fight for so-called true democracy?

Different people have different opinions on whether our new leader should put political reforms front and center or give it low priority.

The opposition has made clear it wants genuine democracy to be a top priority. The establishment camp has not said clearly what its preference is but will no doubt toe the line of Lam and Beijing.

Defeated chief executive candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, stated from the start he would put political reforms at the top of his agenda and would insist on a revamp of Beijing’s Aug. 31 framework.

John Tsang Chun-wah meandered on the issue. He had shifted from putting political reforms on hold to using the Aug. 31 framework as a first step to starting with a clean slate.

Throughout the election campaign Lam stuck to her position that reforms could only be revisited when society became less divided.

She did not deviate from this line in her victory press conference, saying reforms must wait until there is a more favorable political climate.

But what about the people? Do ordinary Hong Kong people want their politicians and leaders to go through another bruising fight over reforms in the dim hope a unifying model acceptable to all sides could be found or do they want them to focus instead on pressing issues such as affordable housing, universal pension, and education?

Some months ago, former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and I were both panelists at a Harvard Business School conference in Hong Kong. Our panel discussed the issue of whether Hong Kong was a city in decline.

The issue was based on a column I had written elsewhere saying Hong Kong was indeed a city in decline, torn apart by our long and divisive fight for so-called true democracy.

Tsang argued that political reforms embracing a democratic model that the majority of people trusted must come first.

He said Hong Kong’s many pressing problems could not be solved without a political model acceptable to the people, the major political parties, and the central government.

I don’t totally agree.

Of course, it would be best if all sides were happy with a new political model. But in today’s divided Hong Kong, it is like living in la-la land to think we can find a political model that satisfies all the main stakeholders.

Should we risk once again going through the rancor we went through triggered by the Aug. 31 framework in the hope that this time there will be a happy ending or should we tell ourselves we should take a break to focus on livelihood issues?

There is a simple reason why I say we are living in la-la land if we think we can find a political model acceptable to all.

The major stakeholders are too far apart ideologically for an acceptable solution to be found.

Over half of the people had hoped that reunification would make mainland China become more like Hong Kong, a free society. The other half had hoped reunification would make Hong Kong people more patriotic towards a rising China. Neither happened.

That largely explains why we are now divided into the pro-democracy camp, which consistently wins about 55 percent of the votes in elections, and the loyalist camp, which gets about 45 percent.

Executive Council convener Lam Woon-kwong talked about this divide on my TV show recently. He believes the only way political reforms can succeed is for the new chief executive to propose a framework and appoint an independent middleman to negotiate behind closed-doors with the major parties in the opposition and establishment camps.

The negotiations must be confidential, with neither side talking to the media. The chief executive, after laying down a framework, will stay out of the negotiations.

Once a compromise is reached, it will be the job of the chief executive to sell the framework to the central government by assuring mainland leaders that nothing in the agreed framework can threaten national security or weaken Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

This sounds like a good plan that could actually work if all sides are serious about finding a compromise framework.

My worry is that the chief executive election has increased the central government’s mistrust of the opposition camp.

It is obvious that the democracy camp gave all its 300-plus votes to John Tsang only because the central government preferred Carrie Lam, not because Tsang has proven himself to be a better leader.

Central government leaders must be furious that the opposition never gave Lam a chance to prove herself but demonized her instead as "CY Leung 2.0" just because Beijing supported her.

It will be next to impossible for Beijing to trust the opposition anytime soon.

And it will be politically self-defeating for the opposition to embrace Lam as the chief executive even though she won 777 votes, far more than Leung’s 689.

The number 777 can sound like a Cantonese swear word. I expect the opposition to make use of this to mock Lam in the same way it mocked Leung’s 689 votes.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.