Is Carrie Lam's honeymoon with the opposition over?

January 31, 2019 09:00
Carrie Lam enjoyed a long post-election political honeymoon by reaching out to the opposition, but that phase seems to have ended. Photo: Bloomberg

Slowly but surely it seems we are heading back to the bad old days when mutual contempt between then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying and the opposition ran so deep that the two sides wouldn't even acknowledge each other's presence, let alone talk. When Leung made his shock announcement in December 2016 that he would not seek re-election, his political opponents – he had many – mockingly cheered.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s victory in the 2017 small-circle chief executive election – which came as no surprise – raised hopes that Hong Kong’s politics would become less toxic even though the opposition had supported her opponent John Tsang Chun-wah. Opposition legislators resolved to be less hostile to the new chief executive after having coined the phrase “Anyone but CY”.

Indeed, Lam enjoyed a long post-election political honeymoon by reaching out to the opposition. She even attended the anniversary reception of the Democratic Party, which was in stark contrast to Leung, who was not even invited to such receptions and had ordered invited senior officials to boycott them. But now, less than two years into her five-year term, the honeymoon Lam enjoyed with the opposition is on the rocks.

As I have said before, there can never be total harmony or a prolonged honeymoon between the executive branch and the opposition in a free society like Hong Kong where the legislature has a mix of directly and indirectly-elected members. The so-called pan-democrats have long behaved like the opposition while the government-friendly parties almost always side with the government.

Democratic politics, by its very nature, is more about confrontation than compromise. Even though Hong Kong’s political system is not fully democratic, it is democratic enough to have an opposition, whose members are elected by voters with a yearning for full democracy and a mistrust of Beijing. This makes confrontation rather than compromise the norm.

Even though the opposition’s role is to oppose – and it did that with hostility during Leung’s rule – it wanted a fresh beginning with Lam so that the deep societal split could be eased in the post-Leung era. Opposition legislators had also concluded after by-election losses that their supporters wanted them to focus on livelihood issues as well – not just democracy – especially after the failed Occupy movement dashed hopes of full democracy.

So why is the chumminess between Lam – who also wants the focus to be on livelihood issues – and the opposition now coming apart? Opposition legislators had told me in several TV interviews they didn’t seek nor want a cozy relationship with Lam. They just want friendlier relations rooted in mutual respect so that the two sides could more easily solve issues by understanding each other’s concerns.

But many opposition legislators told me in private conversations Lam has changed a lot, especially in recent months. She has grown too arrogant and cocksure, born of a belief that she enjoys the complete trust and support of President Xi Jinping. They point to last October’s opening of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge when Lam walked side-by-side with Xi, ahead of mainland officials far more senior than her. That was a clear break from China’s rigid protocol.

I don’t know if Lam has indeed become arrogant since I only see her at receptions and when she comes to my TVB show. But she is more prone nowadays to saying and doing things in a haughty way without first considering the consequences. I couldn’t believe it when she mocked opposition legislators as being jealous after they complained about being excluded from a meeting she had with government-friendly lawmakers on raising the age for elderly welfare.

Her initial refusal to see opposition legislators on the issue did much to wreck the cordial relationship the two sides enjoyed after her election. Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung went as far as to say relations between Lam and the opposition had sunk to their lowest. When she faced sharp criticism in the Legislative Council for raising the elderly welfare age from 60 to 65, she angered lawmakers by caustically reminding them they had voted for it.

Lam’s popularity has been steadily dropping to record low levels, further worsened by a series of recent embarrassing issues. Even pro-government legislators joined the opposition to vote down a motion to raise the elderly welfare age, forcing Lam to offer a more palatable compromise, which lawmakers have yet to accept.

The opposition, joined by the establishment camp, likewise threatened to vote against the government’s plan to ease tunnel traffic congestion by adjusting fares, forcing Lam to withdraw a motion on the issue. Even as these two embarrassing U-turns were playing out, the government came under scathing public attack for its sloppy handling of a HK$4,000 handout to qualified applicants announced in last year’s budget, forcing Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po to apologize.

Likewise, the government came under fierce public attack for its poor handling of the flu outbreak, which exposed the chronic shortage of hospital beds and nursing staff. Overworked nurses protested outside government headquarters and an angry doctor likened the packed hospitals to overcrowded Chinese restaurants. Lam was forced to inject a HK$500 million emergency fund to help hospitals overwhelmed by the sheer number of flu patients.

Two days ago Lam showed some humility by admitting she had handled the scandals badly but the opposition, naturally, has taken advantage of all these scandals to paint Lam’s government as totally incapable and out of touch with the people. I don’t know if or when Lam and the opposition can get back on the same cordial footing they had. Lam can start by toning down her cocksure swagger and sarcastic words. The opposition can start by understanding it does no one any good to return to the days of animosity during Leung’s rule.

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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.