Lam and May: So many similarities…but not in a good way

May 31, 2019 16:30
Britain's Theresa May and Hong Kong's Carrie Lam share some negative personality traits, Stephen Vines writes. Photos: Reuters, CNSA

What’s the difference between Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Britain’s outgoing premier Theresa May? Lamentably the answer is that Lam can fail as much as she likes without losing her job while in Britain May has had to accept the consequences of failure.

Besides this the two women are remarkably similar but not in a good way.

However let’s start with some positives because they tend to be forgotten while the negatives loom so large. Both women have broken through in a male dominated world by dint of determination and hard work. Their diligence and commitment are not in question.

Now to the negatives. Theresa May demonstrated an extraordinary stubbornness and inflexibility by rigidly sticking to her plan for securing a Brexit deal when it became increasingly clear that it lacked sufficient parliamentary support. Carrie Lam proudly proclaims a similar inflexible mindset by insisting that she will not change her mind ‘no matter how much political criticism I’m getting’ over new extradition legislation.

Both of these two women have little time for criticism. Lam, in particular, will not even engage in debate or contemplate meeting critics aside from some tame house-trained critics.

Both of them are essentially loners and micro-managers who have that kind of worrying superiority complex manifest by a firm conviction that once they have made up their minds they will not contemplate change because, as they see it, what’s the point of changing when they are right?

They both stress how hard they work, indeed boast about it without realizing that they are inadvertently admitting to very poor time management and an inability to appreciate that leadership is not only conducted from behind a desk but involves a degree of social interaction.

In an age when media awareness is crucially important, both women, but Lam more than May, barely bother to conceal their impatience with media questioning and they are wretchedly poor performers when placed before cameras and microphones.

Overshadowing these worries character flaws is a fundamental problem. In May’s case it was frequently said that she was ‘prime minister in name only’, in other words that she held the office but had no power to control events.

In Lam’s case she is also Chief Executive ‘in name only’ because all real decisions nowadays are taken in the Liaison Office. Even worse, members of the legislature, and indeed the executive council, now only act on instructions from the Beijing officials.

When the furor over the extradition legislation first erupted, some pro-government legislators were contemplating challenging the government’s plan but, as one leading member of the council explained to me, ‘we are no longer free agents’. The call has come from the real bosses, or as another legislator put it, ‘it has now become a national matter, we can do nothing’. And neither can Lam, who is little more than a conduit for decisions made elsewhere.

Yet there is no question that Lam will remain in office, notwithstanding mounting unpopularity and notwithstanding a singular lack of achievement aside from delivering Mainland-ordered white elephant projects. She never enjoyed a popular mandate to assume office in the first place, so she can hardly loose what she didn’t have. Lam has presided over the bludgeoning of the legislature so that it has become little more than empty shell and voting machine designed to hurry through whatever the masters in Beijing want hurried through.

In a heated contest to become Hong Kong’s worst ever chief executive, Lam has moved to pole position as she escalates the undermining of the SAR’s autonomy. And she went further than her predecessors, achieving the highly dubious feat of alienating a very considerable residue of goodwill that Hong Kong enjoyed in the international community.

May meanwhile became a sad and isolated figure in Number 10 Downing Street but as she owed her position to a system that prioritizes accountability she could hardly expect to remain there when called to account and found to be failing. Britain’s democratic system is severely challenged at the moment and conventional politics is under fire but no one, absolutely no one, is advocating replacing the British system with a Hong Kong-style non-elected government, let alone a Communist dictatorship.

As for Lam, well, she is only called to account in one place and up there in Beijing they have no cause for complaint.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.