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Carrie Lam's ascension casts a shadow over Hong Kong

Limited credibility only fuel fears that Hong Kong's new chief executive elect is a complete puppet of Beijing
Carrie Lam's ascension casts a shadow over Hong Kong

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor speaks during a press conference March 27, a day after she was selected to be the new Hong Kong chief executive. (Photo by Anthony Wallace /AFP)

Published April 12, 2017 

Hong Kong's new chief executive and practicing Catholic Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has a worrying history of obfuscation but she was on her best behavior after being given the nod by her Communist Party masters in Beijing for the job on March 26. Her win is a sign that the regime's choke hold on the former British colony is only likely to intensify.

Asked whether Beijing had helped her get the required number of votes from nearly 1,200 of the city's elite personalities, the majority handpicked by Beijing, she told Radio Television Hong Kong, "I cannot rule out that, over the past period, these things have happened."

However, a few days later she was back to her old habits, claiming a visit to Beijing's powerful Liaison Office in Hong Kong was not a formal visit to pay thanks.  

"If I were the judge, I would consider her a dishonest witness," said retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, one of the three candidates in the election, while describing Lam in an election forum on March 19. 

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Indeed, Hong Kong's chief executive is appointed at Beijing's pleasure and that is that. For Exhibit A, see the decision by Lam's predecessor the hapless C.Y. Leung not to seek a second term. His reward was being kicked upstairs to become a vice president on the toothless China People's Political Consultative Committee, probably in preparation for his retirement.

While all Hong Kong chief executives have hewn reasonably closely to Beijing's line, the stepping up of control over the financial hub, largely through the powerful liaison office, has made the job ever more craven.

Lam may claim that her decision to run was "God's calling," and controversially with Hong Kong's 500,000 odd Catholics but it is clear that her soul is owned lock, stock and barrel by China's leader Xi Jinping, who demands government officials' "100 percent absolute loyalty" to the Party.

The predictions that Lam would be bested by her former colleague John Tsang, another Catholic who was brought up largely in the United States and certainly cuts a more independent figure, proved to be a triumph of hope over experience.

In fact, he gained only 31 percent of the vote and said afterwards that, in retrospect, he was never going to win.

"The election has signaled to all aspirants that they have absolutely no chance of winning if they are not heavily trusted by the central government, regardless of their capability," Liberal Party leader Felix Chung Kwok-pan told the South China Morning Post. "[In] this election everybody knows that the popularity and capability of the candidates no longer matter."

As such, Lam has limited credibility which will only fuel fears in Hong Kong that she is a complete puppet.

Lam's win can be put down to the continuing collusion of business, the liaison office and some government officials in Hong Kong. Beijing aside, most of her supporters are those with vested interests, particularly in the business and commercial fields and she will need to pay them back for their votes.

While more qualified people hesitated to go into the "hot kitchen" left by the C.Y. Leung government, the Liberal Party and several other pro-Beijing political parties are already vying to fill top government posts with their people.

Lam said in a radio interview on April 1 that she had a bad dream one night that she was not able to form the new government by July 1 when she will be sworn in. But it was instead a nightmare of the Hong Kong people to see her giving up the autonomy of the city under the "one country, two systems" principle when she told the press on April 9 that she will discuss the new government with officials in Beijing.  

The forecast of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has proven to be only too true: "My anxiety is this: not that this community's autonomy would be usurped by Beijing but that it could be given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong," he had said.

It is now effectively impossible to practice any semblance of democracy in Hong Kong. Listening only to Beijing, it is hard to see that Lam's term will reflect universal values on democracy and freedom which are similar to values in Catholic teachings.

A commentary in the Chinese edition of the Party-run nationalist tabloid Global Times on Lam's election said that people should "not think naively that copying certain foreign political formats could resolve the big problems that Hong Kong is facing."

Perhaps the most immediately concerning thing about Lam's rise is the move from autumn to winter for Hong Kong media, something her masters in Beijing would be thrilled to oversee as they drive forward with their apparent policy to make Hong Kong just another Chinese city while somehow hoping it can retain what makes it unique, wealthy and very useful to them: the rule of law.

At the very beginning of her campaign, Lam complained that several media outlets were unfriendly to her. These organizations that she named publicly are all have a wide circulation and high creditability in Hong Kong including Apple Daily, the Oriental Daily and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.  

The former chief secretary, Hong Kong's No. 2 position, also "taught" government TV channels to report on her "smart quotes" and to produce programs similar to CCTV in China. After receiving criticism of her remarks, she argued that she was just joking.

In a session where Lam met with the media, she lied that she never liked leaking news to the media. She said it in the presence of many journalists who had attended her closed-door briefings to selected media when she was a government official. Having reminded her of that, she said, "I did not do so most of the time."

So it is unfortunate that we can except to see more obfuscation and denials coming in the next five years both from Lam and her masters. The more troubling question remains whether this is the beginning of the end of the city as we know it or whether that point was reached some time ago.

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