Carrie Lam fades, but her damaging legacy lingers


At the stroke of midnight of July 1, Carrie Lam became yesterday’s chief executive in Hong Kong. John Lee, who joined the Government as a police inspector in 1977,  was sworn in at a ceremony presided by President Xi Jinping. In a resemblance to July 1 1997, whether Hong Kong will get better or worse is anybody’s guess. But the past five years under the reign of Lam are deplorable, to put it mildly.

Flashed back to early 2017. Former financial chief John Tsang had warned of more divisiveness if Lam, his main election rival, won. Tsang spoke as Lam stood by at a TV Chief Executive election forum. Few had dismissed it as a mere election rhetoric; it was a real concern.

With her five-year term ended, Tsang’s prophecy has proven to be damn accurate. Worse, the damages her governance inflicted have run deep. It will take a long time to repair if the power-that-be is eagerly keen to do so, a big if.

This is not what she thinks, however. Agree it or not.

Appearing for the last time at the Legislative Council on June 8, she shied away from making a self-evaluation of her work when asked by a lawmaker, Paul Tse. But in her opening remarks, she said she “is not ashamed of the report card” of her five years in power.

During the following weekend, she attended radio programmes to further propagate her performance and deflect criticisms against her failure and deficiencies, listing out achievements such as the abolition of the much-criticised Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism and extension of maternity leave.

Citing figures, she claimed she did better than her predecessors in keeping property prices stable. But she swept a list of housing failures under the carpet. More than 200,000 people are living in subdivided flats. A family will now have to wait for up to 6.2 years on average to get subsidised housing, not three years as pledged.

She insisted the decision to amend the extradition bill in 2019 was correct, blaming the havoc being caused on failure of the official/s in charge of the bill to explain to the public timely and sufficiently. In short, a PR issue. She did not name name/s. The bill was handled by the Security Bureau, which was headed by John Lee.

A tape obtained by Reuters has revealed she told a closed door meeting attended by business figures in August 2019 she would quit if she had a choice. She said: “For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable. It’s just unforgivable.”

Lam has denied in media interviews she had contemplated the idea of quitting. Believe it or not.

Speaking to the media last month, she did admit, rightly, she had made a good start after succeeding Leung. She had sought to mend fences with the democrats, befriend with the now-disbanded pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union and give accreditation to online media outlets, among others.

Then came a chain of blunders that began with the introduction of the extradition bill, followed by belated moves to defuse public opposition and controversial police handling of protesters, whipped up a perfect storm. The rest is history.

The prolonged confrontation between riot police and protesters that ensued had not just deepened the rift in the society, which has been left unhealed after the 79-day Occupy Central movement ended in December 2014, but depleted the fundamental strengths of Hong Kong.

That is not possibly what Beijing leaders had envisioned when they hand-picked Lam to displace Leung Chun-ying.

Leung was dubbed “divisiveness 1.0” after the city was torn apart by the 2014 protest. An ABC campaign, or Anyone But CY, was initiated by the pro-establishment camp to frustrate his re-election bid.

It was against that background that Lam was chosen. Bearing her former boss’ failure in mind, she had adopted “We Connect” as her campaign slogan. In her victory speech, she said: “Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from a serious divisiveness, and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority is to heal the divide, ease the frustrations and unite our society to move forward.”

She ended up doing the opposite. Her failure to quell the storm of protests had worsened divisiveness, government-people ties and, worse, relations between the central government and Hong Kong.

Shocked by the rise of what they deemed as pro-independence political activism with foreign forces behind, Beijing has adopted a two-pronged tactic aimed to restore order and rebuild a new political order under the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong”. It started with the enactment of the Hong Kong national security law in 2020, followed by a revamp of the electoral system in 2021.

After Beijing acted, the pro-democracy camp disintegrated with dozens of leaders taken to court for multiple charges. Many of whom are serving jail sentences. Pro-democracy civil society groups closed down one after another. Following the closure of Jimmy Lai’s Next media group, major independent online media outlets ceased operation one after another.

Fretting about the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, Western countries spoke out loudly of their concerns about the state of high-degree autonomy Hong Kong is given under the “one country, two systems” policy. Some imposed sanctions against mainland and Hong Kong officials, including Carrie Lam and John Lee.

Ties between Hong Kong and major Western countries hit a low point. The city’s harsh anti-Covid quarantine measures, which fall in line with the nation’s “dynamic zero-infection” strategy, have added furor among the business people. Some have warned of a drain of business executives and their families.

On the face of it, the 2019 perfect storm is over. But its aftermath has and will continue to linger, casting a long shadow over long-term viability of Hong Kong.

Lam has said she would have nothing to do with whatever happens in Hong Kong after July 1. She cannot be more wrong.

The share of responsibility on Lam for the collateral damages on Hong Kong – and the central authorities –  may be a subject of debate. Undeniably, Hong Kong today will be quite different if she had done things differently in 2019. But history cannot be rewritten.


Chris Yeung is a veteran journalist, a founder and chief writer of the now-disbanded CitizenNews; he now runs a daily news commentary channel on Youtube. He had formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.