Budget handout won't change fortune of HK's backstabbing leader

February 27, 2020 08:00
Carrie Lam wears a mask during a news conference on Jan. 28. The Hong Kong leader, already suffering record low approval ratings following the 2019 extradition bill fiasco, has drawn further flak from citizens amid the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Reuters

Watch your words. What you say often comes back to haunt to you. Smart politicians run their words through the brain before they come out of the mouth. Dumb politicians use their mouths more than their brains. They almost always end up paying a heavy political price.

Western democracies have no shortage of disgraced politicians who said or did things without thinking. US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg is a good example. His election opponents are using racist remarks he made when he was New York mayor to attack him.

Hong Kong's establishment camp politicians learned a humiliating lesson for not watching their words. The camp lost almost all its district council seats in last November’s election for its blind support of Beijing and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during the anti-government protests.

But don’t expect undemocratically-elected Lam – who became leader with 777 votes out of a seven-million population – to pay a political price anytime soon for her arrogant handling of the protests and the coronavirus outbreak.

Lam's words and deeds in the past eight months would have been the end of her in any democracy and even in some authoritarian regimes. In all my years as a journalist – pre and post-handover – I have never seen such an incompetent leader. But she is praised as courageous by President Xi Jinping.

On a scale of 1 to 10 on political savviness, I would grade her minus zero. The same goes for her ability to read the public mood. Her civil service background can only make her an obedient number two who knows how to follow orders. She possesses none of the qualities required of a leader. Yet Hongkongers – most of whom loathe her – have no power to throw her out.

I still remember Lam making clear after being selected as chief executive that she would never give cash handouts to the people. When I pressed Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po during a TV interview on whether he personally agreed with never giving cash handouts, he repeatedly said it was “the philosophy of this term of government.”

That clearly meant it was Lam’s philosophy, not that of the financial secretary. Her words came back to slap her in the face yesterday when Chan gave everyone a HK$10,000 cash handout. Chan could not have done that without Lam’s approval. This alone proves Lam doesn’t even know the first rule of politics: Never say never.

It's hard to count the number of times she stood firm against the wishes of the people, only to be forced into backing down. Remember when she refused to withdraw the extradition bill even though millions marched against it? Violent protests finally forced her into declaring the bill dead.

She mocked young people at the frontlines of the anti-government protests by saying they had no stake in society. True leaders would never use such cruel language to attack the young. Public outrage forced her to quickly eat her words. But her mocking of young people will forever be part of her legacy.

Lam dismissed public demands to close the border with mainland China as the coronavirus spread. She wasted precious time evacuating Hong Kong passengers off a cruise ship in Japan infected with the virus. And she ignored desperate pleas to repatriate over 2,000 Hongkongers trapped in Hubei, the epicenter of the virus epidemic.

Public pressure finally forced her to close most mainland border crossings, rescue Hong Kong cruise ship passengers in Japan, and begin the process of repatriating Hongkongers trapped in Hubei. Some politicians are convinced Lam is using the Hubei repatriation to help the establishment camp in September’s Legislative Council elections. It is hard not to believe this theory, given Lam's nature.

She has not denied media reports that she backstabbed her own advisers and the establishment camp in a letter to her Beijing bosses, accusing Executive Council members and the establishment camp of not showing her loyalty.

Her letter also suggested Beijing could use the coronavirus outbreak to help the establishment camp win the September elections by generously supplying Hong Kong with facemasks and other healthcare necessities. Only the most devious leader would use a health crisis for political gain. If she didn’t send a backstabbing report to her Beijing bosses, she should come out and say so.

The financial secretary dished out HK$120 billion in relief measures yesterday, which includes HK$10,000 cash handout to every adult. This huge handout will cause a deficit of nearly HK$140 billion. Lam’s domineering style means Chan had to get her approval for the handouts. Does she have an ulterior motive for the huge relief package? If she can use a health crisis for political gain, then anything is possible.

Many people say Lam’s face has physically changed into something they can no longer bear to look at. I am not sure if a face can physically change. But I am sure of one thing: no cash handout can buy off Hong Kong people. The millions who marched against her will do so again should the need arise.

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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.