Carrie Lam retains her ratings, but hold the applause

August 17, 2017 15:00
Carrie Lam has enjoyed good approval ratings after taking office but she needs to move fast on key issues if she is to build on the early goodwill. Photo: Bloomberg

The government continues to face questions over planned joint checkpoint arrangements for the cross-border high-speed rail, but the controversy has so far failed to dent the approval ratings of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her top team.

According to the latest survey from the public opinion program of the University of Hong Kong, Lam's popularity with the public has actually increased slightly, by half a percentage point, to 59.0 compared to a previous poll.

Her approval rate was at 52 percent and the disapproval rate was at 37 percent, giving her a net popularity rating of 15 percentage points, little changed from the figure two weeks ago. 

Among Lam's top aides, the support rating of Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung was at 56.2. His approval rate was at 37 percent and disapproval rate at 16 percent, giving him net positive popularity of 21 percentage points.

As for Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, who is leading the government efforts to promote the so-called co-location arrangement for the express rail link, his support rating stood at 50.9, according to the survey findings released on Tuesday.

Overall, the figures indicate that Lam and her top aides have done quite a good job in managing people's expectations in their first few weeks on the job, despite getting caught up in issues such as the express rail plan that will see China enforcing its laws in parts of the West Kowloon station. 

Opposition groups have accused the administration of making exaggerated or misleading claims in relation to the expected benefits from the express rail link to Guangzhou, but it appears the public is willing to give the benefit of doubt to Lam and her team, at least for now.

However, it would be a mistake if Lam and her top officials interpret the survey findings as a ringing endorsement of their policies.

Lam's good ratings actually have more to do with people's relief at the end of the reign of her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, rather than the performance of the current administration itself.

Most citizens are just glad to see the back of Leung, who focused on more waging political battles at the behest of Beijing rather than addressing the key concerns of Hong Kong people. 

With his departure, there are hopes for a relatively quiet and peaceful social environment where authorities will focus on issues such as education and tax system reform.

That said, not too many people harbor illusions that Lam can be anything other than a puppet of Beijing authorities, given the circumstances in which she secured the top job. 

Lam's priority, for the moment, is to keep order in the city and let things cool down after Leung's turbulent tenure, preventing controversial issues from reaching a boiling point.

In keeping with this strategy, she has avoided commenting on sensitive political issues and pledged that she won't revisit contentious previous government proposals.

Even on the co-location issue, Lam has largely stayed behind the scenes, letting others take the stage and explain the government's decisions. 

That same approach was also evident in her handling of the latest hot-button topic in the city -- the claims by Democratic Party's Howard Lam that he was abducted and tortured by mainland agents. 

While Lam avoided taking the stage on sensitive issues, she showed willingness to engage with the public and the media on topics such as tax system reform and the education sector funding.

The aim is to give the impression that she is a leader with a new mindset and that she is ready to push for new policies.

Winning the public's trust and building her credibility are things that appear foremost on her mind, given that people largely viewed her with suspicion before she took office.

Lam may be congratulating herself that she is succeeding in her mission, but she will be mistaken if she views her early popularity ratings as a sign that people have changed their view on her.

She has a long way to go if she is to fulfill her pledge of healing the rifts in society and improve people's livelihoods.

There is still a huge element of uncertainty about what Lam intends to take up as her top tasks in the months ahead.  

With her predecessor Leung, at least people were aware of his style and knew what to expect. In Lam's case, one doesn't really know what's on her mind as she does a good job of keeping a poker face and avoid making direct comments on sensitive issues.

The Justice department's recent move seeking jail terms for 13 young activists who fought for what they believed was a just cause shows that authorities are far from healing the wounds in society.

Rather than take a conciliatory approach, the administration seems to be just following Beijing orders and using the courts as a tool to send radical political activists to jail.

While authorities tout the importance of upholding the rule of law, is sending youngsters to jail really the way to go if we want to mend the social rifts and improve the political environment?

This is something that Lam and her top officials will need to ponder. And the answer won't be too difficult. 

While Lam may be enjoying good approval ratings for now, there are many people, especially the youth, who are getting disillusioned and willing to step up the fight against the establishment.

People like the young activist Joshua Wong, who too could face a jail term over a pro-democracy protest he undertook in 2014.

"I hope to encourage Hong Kong people to keep on fighting for democracy. When the youngsters... continue to stand in the frontline, I think there's no reason for Hong Kong people to step backward," Wong said on Wednesday, echoing the thoughts of many people.

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EJ Insight writer