Why Carrie Lam did not bow during her public apology

June 20, 2019 13:20
Carrie Lam’s decision not to bow when she made her apology on Tuesday over the extradition bill was said to have been based on multiple considerations. Photo: HKEJ

On Tuesday, at a media session, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngo said she was offering a “most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong” for the “controversies, disputes and anxieties in society” that stemmed from her bid to amend the extradition law.

“The concerns over the past few months have been caused by deficiencies in the work of the SAR (Special Administrative Region) Government over the amendment exercise. I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society. For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” she said.

Earlier that day, Executive Council (Exco) member Ip Kwok-him, who represents the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) -- the city's largest pro-establishment political party -- said during a radio program that the chief executive may need to use body language to mirror her words and remorseful feelings in relation to the extradition bill saga.

Ip’s remarks fueled talk among observers that Lam could perform a 90-degree bow and apologize during her presser that evening, which had been scheduled for 4 pm.

Expecting a major news event, dozens of media personnel from local as well as foreign news outlets arrived the venue early as they sought to grab the best seats. Photographers scrambled for the ideal angle to record the “historic moment”.

Well, the apology came from Lam, but there was no bowing. Nor did the chief executive shed tears, depriving the assembled cameramen of potentially dramatic images. 

Meanwhile, many among the crowds that were watching the live broadcast of the event outside the government offices were also very disappointed that Lam refused to conduct an independent inquiry into the police's handling of the June 12 protests.

On Wednesday morning, Ip and fellow Exco member Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun appeared on a radio program to rally to the chief executive’s defense.

During the radio program, Ip conceded that Lam may have fallen short on people's expectations as she did not bow in front of the cameras. But he stressed that although the chief executive didn’t bow, it didn't mean that she wasn’t sincere in her apology.

It is understood that during a meeting at Lam's official residence on Monday, some members of the Executive Council did suggest that Lam should bow when she gives the public apology in the press conference the next day, to help convey true sincerity.

It was such suggestion that apparently led Ip to make his “prophecy” in the radio show on the morning the next day.

According to sources, the government held an internal discussion as to whether or not the chief executive should bow. The discussion saw participants give different opinions, which led to the proposal being dropped.

Opponents of the bowing proposal were said to have argued that not bowing doesn’t necessarily equal being insincere.

Besides, there were different perspectives on the act itself, with people pointing out that there is no universal standard in society as to how deep a bow one should perform in order to fully demonstrate one’s sincerity.

Since there wasn’t any consensus within the administration over the bowing issue, a final decision was made that it would be enough for the chief executive to apologize to the public in words only.

Apart from bowing, another matter which media personnel were keeping a close eye on at the media session Tuesday was whether Lam would announce full withdrawal of the extradition bill, rather than merely suspending it indefinitely.

Lam, however, avoided the word “withdraw” despite repeated queries from the journalists.

According to the explanations of a pro-establishment figure and a government source, the main reason why Lam refrained from using the word “withdraw” was that she didn't want to let down the people who had been backing her legislative push.

The government source admitted that things would have been a lot easier if Lam had said directly that she would “withdraw” the bill.

Yet, that didn't happen as the government had to take care not to hurt the feelings of some groups.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, an Executive Councilor, said Lam may seem cold on the outside, but she is sentimental deep inside her heart.

Tong explained that the reason why the chief executive didn’t bow is that she had to strike a balance between emotions of people from different sides, the anti-bill protesters as well as the political parties that had supported her legislative initiative.

Also, Lam needed to keep police morale in mind, not doing anything that would be perceived as loss of "face" for the force, as well as the central government, according to Tong.

Hence, the decision not to bow.

This is an updated version of a column that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 19

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.