CARRIE LAM, HONG KONG’S newly elected chief executive (seen above), has a nigh impossible task in satisfying the desires and wishes of both her masters in Beijing and her constituents in Hong Kong, or more precisely, those who would be her constituents had they a vote.
It is equally nigh impossible to imagine that Lam will not prioritise those of the first over those of the latter. She has said that ministers in her administration would “be in charge of their own work” rather than taking their cue from Beijing’s local representatives. However, even if they are not following the script word for word, they will certainly follow the gist.
First, though, she will need to repair the damage done by her predecessor, the hapless and unpopular CY Leung. His five years in office were marked by civil discontent over political reform and an increasing chaffing on Beijing’s part at Leung’s inability to quell divisiveness that was evident not only on the streets of Hong Kong.
As Leung’s chief secretary, Lam will arrive carrying some of her predecessor’s baggage. However, before that, she was a well-regarded career civil servant. That may stand her in good stead, particularly with the Beijing-friendly business establishment whose support she will quickly want to consolidate, probably through more deregulation and tax reform. They (and Beijing, which backed her) will expect her administration to be more competent than that of Leung. She also comes without the scandals that dogged his term in office.
Winning over the opposition in the Legislative Council let alone outside it will be a different matter. It doubts that Lam will compromise on the key political reform issues that stalled under Leung. Possible education reform and more construction of affordable public housing — much needed though it is — will not be enough to offset that.
Lam also suffers from the constraint on every Hong Kong chief executive, the absence of a popular mandate. Hong Kong’s population of more than 7 million is reduced to an electoral committee of 1,194 voters that is more, if not entirely, representative of its pro-Beijing business establishment than the overall population.
A greater constraint lies 2,000 kilometres to the north. Beijing will not tolerate any consideration of the political and constitutional reforms the opposition wants. Independence is no more on the cards for Hong Kong than it is for Taiwan.
Many Hong Kong residents, though, while realistic about the realpolitik of their situation, are protective of the autonomy granted to them for 50 years under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement by which the United Kingdom returned its colony to China in 1997. They do not appreciate the efforts of Beijing is making to accelerate the full integration of Hong Kong into China before 2047.
The fear is that many of the protections and freedoms granted under the Basic Law, such as access to the courts, private property rights and freedoms of speech, association and assembly will start to erode at the same pace.
As they have shown, some at least are ready to take to the streets to defend those rights. Even worse than an independent Hong Kong, by Beijing’s lights, would be a Chinese Hong Kong that harboured a centre of opposition to the Party. Lam’s term of office will take Hong Kong to the half-way mark to 2047. The trick she will have to pull off is knowing how much reform to allow to sustain popular trust in her administration without pointing even a toe in either the splitist or dissident direction.