Carrie Lam and the opposition make strange bedfellows

March 29, 2018 09:01
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor turns up at the Democratic Party’s anniversary dinner with all her bureau heads. Photo: HKEJ

Is a grand reconciliation in the making? Or are we just seeing an illusion created by both sides for public consumption? My hunch is the recent rapport between the opposition and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor won’t develop deep roots. American President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping behaved like best friends too during Trump’s China visit. Now, just months later, a trade war is looming.

Lam came into office promising a hand of friendship instead of a fist after five turbulent years of mutual loathing between the opposition and her predecessor Leung Chun-ying. She enjoyed smooth sailing at first but then headwinds hit with the disqualification of opposition legislators and election candidates, joint immigration at the express rail terminus, a national anthem law, and the scandal over new justice secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s illegal structures.

Still, the friction between Lam and the opposition over these issues never descended into the levels of animosity seen during Leung’s time. Had Leung appointed a justice minister with illegal structures, you can bet the opposition would still be fanning the scandal in the same way it is refusing to let go Leung’s alleged wrongdoing over the UGL payment.

Now, after nine months in office marred by periods of friction, Lam appears to have charmed the opposition back into a budding reconciliation. She turned up at the Democratic Party’s anniversary dinner with all her bureau heads. She even donated HK$30,000 to the party.

Opposition legislators, for whatever reason, are treating Lam with kid gloves. They often give her an easy ride when she goes to the Legislative Council. They didn’t heckle during her policy speech nor during Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po’s budget speech, although they criticized both speeches. They have shown only token resistance to sensitive issues such as the national anthem law. Many have agreed to join a visit to the Greater Bay Area. And most mystifying of all, they have stopped their vociferous attacks against Cheng.

Lasting peace or a lull in warfare? Some commentators said Lam’s appearance at the Democratic Party dinner and HK$30,000 donation were signs of a thawing out between her and the opposition. If that’s true then the opposition can be cheaply bought. An apologetic Lam has since insisted people are reading too much into the donation. She blamed her staff for saying on social media that it marked a grand reconciliation, insisting thawing out was unnecessary since she had good ties with the opposition.

Believe that if you must but political donations are rarely made without an intended message. And it is a stretch to say Lam is on such friendly terms with the opposition that reconciliation is unnecessary. Past experience tells us rather than being natural allies, hostility has always been the hallmark of relations between the chief executive and the opposition. Every chief executive since the handover has had a rocky relationship with the opposition.

Even if Lam manages to break this trend, she and the opposition would make strange bedfellows. The chief executive is seen as putting Beijing’s interests above Hong Kong’s interests. The opposition brands itself as defending Hong Kong’s core values against meddling by Beijing.

Beijing requires the chief executive to toe the line that one country supersedes two systems. That requirement has become more rigid under President Xi Jinping. But the opposition is beholden to its voters rather than Beijing. Most core opposition supporters do not want to see one country swallowing up two systems. That’s why the voter ratio in elections is traditionally 60-40 or 55-45 in favor of the opposition.

But the opposition lost that grip on the voter ratio in the recent by-elections, which showed public opinion swinging away from radical towards moderate politics. I have said before an election is only a snapshot of the public mood at a given time. Still, politics is too fickle to even guess how long such a mood will persist.

Until the recent rise of localism and the Hong Kong independence movement, the opposition was seen as a moderate rather than a radical force. This impression gradually changed when the opposition sided with independence supporters Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang in their fight against Legco disqualification for their profanity-filled oath-taking. The opposition further alienated moderate voters by siding with young radicals pushing for self-determination.

When Beijing tightened its grip on Hong Kong, equating self-determination with independence, many moderate voters abandoned opposition by-election candidates. That voter message was not lost on the opposition. It understood it was time to shed its radical and obstructionist image.

Carrie Lam also understood that after five years of Leung’s combative style she had to be seen as making peace with the opposition which, after all, still represents a large part of the population despite its by-election losses. This set the stage for Lam and an opposition trying to re-cast its image to walk the path of reconciliation even though Lam says there is no friction between her and political parties.

Is the current coziness the beginning of a lasting peace or a pause in political warfare? That depends on how one defines reconciliation. If it is defined as an indefinite political honeymoon between Lam and the opposition then I can’t see it happening. If reconciliation simply means cooperation in mutually agreed areas then it is absolutely doable. The current coziness is better defined as a temporary marriage of convenience rather than a start to reconciliation.

I have said before it is politically impossible for the opposition to have total harmony with the administration for the simple reason that it would then lose its status as the opposition, let alone its core voter base. A successful reconciliation would create the suitable atmosphere that Lam has repeatedly said was necessary to re-start the political reform process.

But once the reform process starts, the opposition is duty-bound to stick with its core demand for so-called genuine democracy without Beijing screening out chief executive candidates it doesn’t trust. But Beijing has made it amply clear the only offer on the table is the Aug. 31, 2014 reform framework which the opposition has already rejected.

That will bring us back to square one and the end of any grand reconciliation unless either the opposition or Beijing gives ground. Beijing will appear weak if it bends. The opposition can’t bend because fighting for true democracy is the foundation for its existence. That’s why real reconciliation is an unachievable goal, at least for now.

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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.