How Carrie Lam could have avoided frequent misjudgements

October 30, 2019 19:01
Carrie Lam could have avoided many mistakes if she had a good advisor or made the effort to listen to sane outside counsel, observers say. Photo: Reuters

In 2017, shortly after taking the reins of power in July, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor undertook a major staffing overhaul at the Chief Executive’s Office, an exercise that saw only Chen Jianping, the senior special assistant who had served four chief executives, stay on in his post without getting shunted around.

Yet Chen, who is very well-connected in the mainland and is thoroughly familiar with the national affairs, suddenly quit in May last year.

After his departure, the chief executive hasn’t appointed to her office any official specializing in liaising and communicating with Beijing. Instead, Lam has taken it upon herself to do that.

Up until the outbreak of the anti-extradition bill movement this June, a number of political figures had suggested that the administration should recruit specialist talent to re-assume the responsibility of liaising with Beijing.

However, that advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears, with Lam showing no inclination to expand the manpower of her “psychological warfare unit”.

Chen had been appointed to the Chief Executive’s Office as special assistant back in the period when Tung Chee-hwa was in power.

According to Chen's former colleagues, in the past whenever the chief executives paid official visits to the mainland, from Shenzhen to Beijing, the top leader was always accompanied by the special assistant.

It is said that not only was Chen able to elaborate on the state of affairs in the mainland, he was also highly familiar with the political dynamics among the various factions in the party leadership.

According to one of Chen’s former colleagues, many state leaders would directly call Chen by his first name, a reflection of how well-connected he is.

A figure within the administration has revealed that even though Chen was able to keep his job after Lam had taken office, the two were hardly close to each other, in part because the chief executive felt she didn’t need to rely on anyone else apart from herself to be clued into the goings on in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Eric Chan Kwok-ki, the director of the Chief Executive’s Office, was held in high esteem by Lam and became her right-hand man. As a result, Chen quit his job in less than a year, and his position remains vacant to this day.

There is talk that Lam has no intention of seeking anybody to fill that vacancy.

Recently, when I spoke with a number of figures within the government about why Lam has made so many misjudgments in governance in the past few weeks, many of them brought up the name of Chen, saying that had the chief executive had someone like the former senior special assistant by her side offering advice, many of the mistakes could have been avoided.

The Chief Executive’s Office currently lacks a talent who is well-versed on the culture of mainland officialdom, they pointed out.

The people noted that the fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which kicked off in Beijing this week, is expected to touch on the issue of Hong Kong.

Amid the event, someone like Chen would have been good for Lam and ensured that she gets the correct insights into what is happening in relation to Beijing's thinking.

After the outbreak of the social unrest in Hong Kong in June this year, some “dedicated individuals” in society, such as former lawmaker Lam Tai-fai and former Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, have tried to talk Lam into overhauling her cabinet.

Among other noted and respected public figures, Joseph Ha Chi-shing, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, had repeatedly called on the government to establish an independent inquiry into the recent events, only to see his advice getting rebuffed.

If such situation persists and the government leadership won't even pay heed to the moderate voices in the pro-establishment bloc, how can we expect an end to the current crisis?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.