Propping up Leader Lam
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Should we have any sympathy for the Chief Executive (CE) of Hong Kong (HK), Carrie Lam, who once considered her administration 'the mother' of HK? Is it within us to extend any humanity at all to her, who has repeatedly ignored calls to address local issues, who only grudgingly offers any smidgin of compromise, who says the essential is unnecessary, who stubbornly holds that the possible is 'impossible', whose idea of a "public dialogue" is a chat with a selected few, whose stubborn refusal to concede to more of the HK protesters' five demands taints her leadership, who has repeatedly failed to provide appropriate solutions for HKers, and who in a narcissistic way can only see critics as her enemies? She did once say she would "push back" against Beijing's wishes if it was in HK's best interests to do so, but as the saying goes, "action speaks louder than words".
The leadership provided by the CE has become more important given the novel coronavirus, termed by WHO "Covid-19", outbreak in neighbouring mainland China. Carrie Lam was elected to the CE role in March 2017, winning 777 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee, composed mostly of Beijing loyalists. Elections for HK's next CE aren't scheduled to take place until 2022. For a long time Lam has had the unequivocal support of authorities in Beijing, as an attempt to extend her some authority as HK's leader, despite the fact that such legitimacy ought to come from the Basic Law or the mandate of the HK people. Instead, the central authorities’ support, given as a reward for her allegiance, may have had the effect in HK of further weakening her position. It has been increasingly obvious that as a leader she does not act independently in the interests of the SAR and its citizens, but instead must answer to mainland authorities.
Public opinion polls in the HK SAR have seen her popularity plummet to a low of 22.3 points out of 100 in October 2019. After months of protests her government has similarly fallen in popularity, with a December 2019 study finding that of 510 respondents interviewed only 10 percent were satisfied with the HK government performance.
As far back as July 2019, there were calls for Carrie Lam to resign, given her style of governing and promotion of a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. Many have accused her of acting as a puppet for the Beijing government. It's no secret that Beijing has set up a special crisis centre in Shenzhen specifically to assist in managing the upheaval in HK. In September, for example, the HK and Macau Affairs Office spokesman, Yang Guang, was very forceful in suggesting that "the HK government, including the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, as well as all sectors of society must take ‘bridling turmoil and curbing violence’ as the city’s most pressing task and the overwhelming priority.” Still, while Lam has insisted that staying on in the post is the right thing to do, others have variously suggested that there is either no other apparent candidate in the offing, or that her Beijing approved replacement could somehow turn out to be even worse! Some have suggested that given recent history and the job description, no one would now want the unenviable responsibility.
Clearly having Carrie Lam in office as CE has suited mainland Communists thus far, but there has also been much rumour that she might be sacked sometime in March 2020. That plan could now be in doubt given the developing Covid-19 crisis that has cast a shadow over all aspects of life in both mainland China and the SAR. However, even with Covid-19 as a major distraction for authorities in mainland China, Carrie Lam probably has little reason to feel secure.
In the face of so much opposition to her leadership and signs she lacks the confidence and required ability for the role, let's take a chronological look at how she has been propped up by Beijing as HK's CE. I offer apologies in advance should any of these words of praise for Lam and her governance come across as repetitive. Click on the media links to more fully understand the context that prompts Beijing to express its unrelenting support.
17th June 2019
"The central government will continue to firmly support the Chief Executive and efforts by the government of the Special Administrative Region to govern according to law," foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. (RTHK)
29th July 2019
"The PRC government would continue to support the governance of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and law enforcement of Hong Kong Police, and also favor anybody who loves China and Hong Kong." (Yang Guang, HK and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council)
"On July 1, we took notice that Carrie Lam pledged to govern with a more tolerant and open style. Beijing will resolutely continue supporting her administration. (Yang Guang, SCMP)
6th August 2019
"The (party's) central committee has full confidence in chief executive Carrie Lam and fully affirms her work." (Front page commentary in China's People's Daily, reported in Straits Times, Singapore)
3rd September 2019
"We firmly support Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in leading the SAR government," Yang Guang, spokesman for the HK and Macao Affairs Office of China's central government, said at a press conference. (Channel News Asia)
Xu says Beijing resolutely supports the Hong Kong police and city's government to punish relevant people behind the violence, with the support of most of the city's public. (Xu Luying, HK and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, reported in SCMP)
6th September 2019
China's Premier Li Keqiang has said Beijing supports the Hong Kong government "to end the violence and chaos". (BBC News)
4th November 2019
China's President Xi Jinping on Monday told embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam he has a high degree of confidence in her and fully recognises the work she and her team have done, state media reported. (Aljazeera)
16th December 2019
Premier Li Keqiang has reiterated support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who called on him at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing today. (The Standard)
Chinese President Xi Jinping praised what he called the courage and commitment of Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, underlining Beijing’s support for her handling of months long anti-government protests despite a public rebuke of the establishment in local elections last month. (Wall Street Journal)
For the second time in a month, Chinese President Xi Jinping has voiced his support for embattled Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam – even as the months of continued unrests have taken an unprecedented toll on Hong Kong’s economy. In brief remarks before a closed door meeting with Mrs Lam in Beijing, President Xi said he recognised her courage to govern the Asian financial hub in “exceptional times” and supported the city’s police in upholding the law. (Asian Insider)
20th December 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that the central government fully supports Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposed “next step,” according to state media, though neither leader revealed details about the plan. (HK Free Press)
12th January 2020
...the first meeting between Lam and Luo Huining, after his surprise appointment by Beijing as its new envoy to the city, sent out a fresh message to all: support comes with conditions.
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Carrie Lam was presented with an opportunity to turn her ratings around in January 2020, immediately after the shock announcement that the director of the HK and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Zhiming was being replaced. It was made clear at this time by his replacement, Luo Huining, that Beijing wanted Article 23 legislation passed in HK as soon as possible to stem acts of treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Central People's Government of China.
However, subsequent events have overtaken concerns about Article 23 and Lam's poor ratings. Her handling of the Covid-19 health crisis and the threat it presents to HK has again drawn strong criticism and rebuke. Just how inadequate her government's hastily concocted plan is remains to be seen. It's all part of a pattern that shows the CE's continuing disconnect with the people she is meant to serve, echoing the CCP's authoritarian approach that is unresponsive to the demands and wishes of HK people.
Following on from success in HK District Council Elections held in November 2019 elements in the pro-democracy movement have been actively recruiting members for newly established labour unions. This right of HK residents to form unions is enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and is one of the guarantees mentioned in Article 27 of the Basic Law. With an eye to the next elections for HK's Legislative Council members scheduled for September 2020, union membership has grown in the hope of garnering a bigger share of votes from functional constituencies.
Lam's steadfast refusal to close off the SAR's borders to stem the flow of potentially infected people from mainland China, and prevent spread of Covid-19 amidst the local community, lead her into conflict with unionised frontline medical staff. At the time Lam seemed to be taking advice given by cadres of Xi Jinping literally, that HK should be more like Macau, and only took small steps to appease her critics after the gambling conclave had acted to limit Covid-19 infections. For many people in HK her actions were "too little, too late!" This virus outbreak has convinced a growing number in HK that Lam defers to Beijing far too much and too often. Behaving in this way must be further evidence of a breach of the Joint Declaration in that it undermines the high degree of autonomy of the SAR.
Lam has unwittingly harmed her dwindling fanbase, by uniting loyalists and democrats against her. During the previous sixth months of civil unrest in HK citizens were divided between the blue ribbon pro-Beijing camp and the yellow ribbon pro-democracy camp. Since Covid-19 has been around all Hong Kongers are united against it's threat, united in the cause of preventing infection and saving lives. So many people have strong memories of the SARs outbreak that impacted HK in 2003, that they simply do not want to relive it. The blue and yellow are united in their frustration that the Lam government is so unwilling to take the strong measures that so many other nations have taken to fully contain the virus and prevent community-based infection in the city.
Amidst HK citizens' learned distrust of both local and central authorities Lam has raised levels of consternation in the SAR much closer to 'panic'. Citizens have resorted to frenzied shopping for face masks and other sanitary products such as disinfectant. Even staple commodities including rice and toilet paper were sold out as people stocked up to protect themselves and, acting in fear, to 'prepare for the worse' that may yet come. The incubation period for the virus first thought to be 14days has grown to 24days, and it's thought to spread from person to person by contact with infected surfaces much like SARs did. Latest reports suggest that aerosols, tiny vapour droplets emitted from our body as we talk, cough and sneeze, can potentially be vectors for spreading the virus. Since solid facts about the virus were initially scant, being told there was no need to panic while the government failed to show it was in control only stoked people's fears.
Furthermore, the economic impact being felt in the SAR is much worse than what resulted from the weeks of street protests and civil unrest in the last seven months. Airlines such as Cathay Pacific that were already suffering before the virus outbreak are having to rethink their operations. Hotels and the catering industry are decimated by the severe drop in tourist numbers visiting HK. Sports and cultural events have been cancelled across the board, and the extended closure of schools has further ramifications in other sectors of the HK economy. There has been a noticeable flow of foreign workers and investment out of the SAR, although it's too early to say who are the long term winners and losers in the HK sharemarket. For the mainland, the economic hit that Covid-19 presents, and its potentially destabilising political effects, are unlikely to be short-lived. These may in turn further impact HK.
While the pro-Beijing DAB party has called upon the HK Government to give immediate cash handouts and tax breaks to help struggling businesses and households, it's certain that HK people will not forget the Lam government's inaction, or its tendency to short-deliver on whatever promises it makes. There's even stronger distrust of the mainland government now amongst blue ribbon people due to the way officials attempted a public health cover-up over initial reports of the virus outbreak in Wuhan. When HK people express their feelings in the ballot box come November's Legislative Council election there is likely to be a much greater unified bloc opposing those factions which have previously acted as pillars of support for Lam.
Adding fuel to the perplexing set of complications faced by Carrie Lam is her fumbling mismanagement of the face mask issue. In October 2019 she exercised a historical emergency law to enact a ban effectively preventing protesters from wearing face masks. This lead to a judicial review that she lost, but in January 2020 before the Covid-19 scare had fully inflated she then chose to appeal the decision.
While awaiting the outcome of the appeal, and as Covid-19 began to make its way into the SAR, she made public statements about who should wear masks and when. Given the slow-down in court proceedings due to Covid-19, and the backlog of court cases arising from the last six months of civil unrest, Lam and those protesters waiting for a hearing are definitely in for a very long wait for any form of justice to be dispensed. It's so unjust!
Her decision to not wear a mask at the media conference then contrasted with the conservative advice of health officials, and with even the observed practice of her own legislative supporters. After three days of critical attack she was in the media again, wearing a mask this time and showing she had changed her position. Her calls for civil servants to avoid using masks so they could be reserved for medical workers raised awkward questions about deficiencies in planning and management of emergency supplies. Social media is especially critical of HK police, who it is claimed, have general access to safety equipment including full hazmat outfits, while staff in hospitals make do with limited supplies.
Perhaps keen to be seen doing something to curb the chances of Covid-19 spreading amongst the city's population, early in February the Labour Department recommended that foreign domestic workers should be required to stay at home on their traditional day off. It is common on Sundays in HK to see groups of Indonesian, Thai, Malay and Filipina women moving about the city and congregating, but since health advice suggested meeting in crowds increases the opportunities for transmission of the virus it was therefore deemed unsafe practice. The CE later defended the announcement at a press conference, showing no awareness of its discriminatory effect and that she had little idea of what life for domestic workers is like.
A further issue Lam has had to deal with is where to house temporarily those people coming into the SAR who might be infected, and who need to go into 14 days quarantine to shield the wider community from potentially contracting the virus. She and her government were alone in trusting cross-border travellers to "self-quarantine" in their own home, and the legislators dealt with the question of how these potentially infected people might get to their own quarters in an unsatisfactory manner. Given general distrust of the Lam government, and the experience of one debacle after another, there was also dismay that volunteers such as medical students and retired civil servants would be asked to assist with checking that those quarantined were keeping to their quarters.
This accommodation problem was quite separate from the need for more beds and medical staff to manage those patients fronting up to hospitals with respiratory illness symptoms. It's very strange how this could be a perennial struggle in HK during its normal flu season, when the SAR has so much cash held in its reserves, and well-respected university teaching and medical research facilities.
Then, once there was evidence of community infection occurring in the SAR, there was a need to set up more quarantine accommodation to isolate HKers who may be carrying the virus in its asymptomatic stage. There have been a number of protests over plans to establish such quarantine centres in the midst of or adjacent to heavily populated housing estates, putting Lam's leadership under further pressure. An empty public housing complex in Fanling was even fire-bombed by protesters, such was the strength of their opposition. This forced Lam to look for more suitable quarantine accommodation elsewhere.
While Lam has kept the red dragon that is Beijing at bay, countering fears of being termed racist, discriminatory and ungrateful by her critics in mainland China, her house that is HK is on fire all around her. Increasingly other countries are establishing containment zones, border controls and establishing flight restrictions. Whereas mainland China has been widely considered the epicentre of the virus outbreak, as a consequence of Lam's inaction HK is often finding it is no longer considered separate from the mainland.
It is worth noting that while there are no international legal structures in place that deal with global epidemics, the WHO acts to bring the efforts of countries together to combat disease outbreaks when they occur. At a national level each country has its own public health law, that for instance obliges the state to report outbreaks, or to take measures to protect other countries from epidemics. I am sure Covid-19 will be the subject of much intense study, soul searching and analysis in the days and weeks to come.
It is no surprise that the majority of HK citizens wish to hold Lam accountable for the havoc she has wrought in the SAR. Blame is a nasty game, and many are looking to point their finger beyond the CE. It is not possible for HK to operate under the "one country, two systems" formula espoused by Beijing, when HK's leader is first and foremost accountable to masters in mainland China. It's no surprise that neighbouring Taiwan has rejected the model outright, seeing what has happened in HK. Yet, as recently as January 22, 2020 when Carrie Lam spoke during a session of the 50th World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, she indicated that President Xi was "definitely" committed to the "one country, two systems" formula of governance, which was "sacrosanct".
Lam just doesn't get it, and she will never cut the mustard!
It will be a momentous day when democratic reform is enacted here in HK, when the CCP virus of authoritarianism is defeated, when there is real accountability for those who serve in public office and who act on behalf of the government, and when through referenda and ballot box citizens of HK have control of what has all along been guaranteed to them under the Joint Declaration. Though it's getting nearer, until that day arrives people power will persist.
Update: 13 February 2020, Beijing has appointed a long-time ally of Xi Jinping, hardliner Xia Baolong, to role of Director of the HK and Macau Affairs Office - a sign it wants to exert more control over the city.
More on Carrie Lam from Vox.com, 10 Mar, 2020
SCMP columnist Michael Chugani poses the question: "If Carrie Lam is governing Hong Kong and Luo Huining is supervising, who's really in charge?