When Beijing picked Carrie Lam to guide Hong Kong in 2017, the main executive faced a city that was deeply resentful of authorities’ refusal to heed widespread phone calls for universal suffrage.
Lam experienced 36 decades working experience in Hong Kong’s civil assistance, was the amount two chief at the time and seen the semi-autonomous territory – a previous British colony – as an “inseparable part” of China. In the course of the pro-democracy sit-ins of 2014, she had acted as the Hong Kong government’s chief mediator, defending a job for Beijing in vetting or picking out the city’s chief.
She could have lacked charisma and preferred enchantment, but to the communist bash rulers, she appeared like a safe guess.
Her early pledge – to uphold the city’s high degree of autonomy that experienced been promised on its return to Chinese rule in 1997 – and “heal the divide” caused by “a whole lot of frustrations” supplied a trace that Lam could also be a leader who could support soothe the anxieties of several Hong Kong persons.
But four many years on, the divides are starker than ever and Hong Kong’s to start with woman chief, has also emerged as its most controversial.
It was Lam who remained identified to push by means of a mainland extradition law in 2019 even after hundreds of thousands experienced poured onto the streets in opposition to the prepare – a transfer that fuelled broader protests for democracy – and it was Lam who stood firmly with Beijing in 2020 when it imposed a national security regulation that cemented mainland handle above Hong Kong’s affairs.
But, even as countless numbers of Hong Kong people emigrate overseas to escape Beijing’s enforced “patriotism” and a crackdown on dissent that has noticed dozens of pro-democracy politicians and campaigners arrested, Lam continues to be steadfast in her belief that she has completed what is finest for Hong Kong, in accordance to individuals who have recognised her individually.
That is regardless of global censure and sanctions by the United States, imposed on her for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
A superior-position Western diplomat informed Al Jazeera that Lam experienced mentioned “all the proper things” when they met soon after she turned main executive.
She told the diplomat: “Hong Kongers experience there is nobody speaking for them.”
“This was considerably less about the loaded Hong Kong tycoon and a ton a lot more about the guy on the avenue,” mentioned the diplomat. “I believe she truly required to do that. And she spectacularly failed in that effort.”
Lam had campaigned for the main executive situation on claims of a lot more affordable housing and making Hong Kong a “more inclusive society”. When she was significantly less well known between the normal public than her opponent John Tsang, the previous money secretary, she went on to secure a the vast majority of votes from a committee of electors stacked with Beijing loyalists.
Raised in a performing-course family members, Lam’s journey to the prime of Hong Kong leadership began when she earned a location at the College of Hong Kong learning social sciences.
After graduating in 1980, she joined the British colonial civil company and took courses at Cambridge University where by she fulfilled her partner.
Above the up coming four a long time, Lam steadily rose through the ranks, keeping many positions in parts this sort of as overall health, housing, trade and progress. In 2012, she was named Main Secretary, only 2nd in command to Hong Kong’s main govt.
Individuals who labored with her advised Al Jazeera that Lam’s time in the civil support taught her that really hard operate would resolve most challenges and instilled in her superior anticipations of herself and colleagues. As a devout Roman Catholic, Lam took terrific pride in her public support, even saying there was a put for her in heaven for “doing the do the job of righteousness”.
A particular person who knew Lam as Chief Secretary mentioned she flourished in an ecosystem “requiring a frame of mind of obedience and conformity”.
“What most folks say about her is she has a ‘head girl’ frame of mind. She does not know how to acknowledge any imperfection in herself or some others. She also has to be range just one and she’s pretty inflexible and unwilling or unable to choose tips, particularly assistance about politics,” stated the individual who could not be named for expert causes. “The negative that every person claims about her … is she is politically tone-deaf and she simply does not fully grasp politics.”
Portion of the motive may perhaps be that Lam, like quite a few in her era, was never experienced for anything at all further than a bureaucratic function, suggests Michael C Davis, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Global Middle in Washington, DC.
“The illness of civil servants all over the place is that they just have on and do their business enterprise. They never ever obtain political teaching. That’s why opening the doorway to politicians to get into federal government and additional democratic reform could’ve saved Hong Kong from [its current] debacle,” Davis mentioned. “Because it would then have political leaders who could represent their voters and also stick their fingers in the mouth and keep it up to the wind and figure out which way the wind is blowing.”
Indeed, all except Lam saw the warning indications when she tried to force by means of the controversial extradition bill in 2019. She argued the invoice was prompted by issues of justice adhering to a controversial murder scenario involving a young Hong Kong couple in Taiwan.
But people today in Hong Kong were already cautious of Beijing’s escalating impact around the territory, and several feared the proposed legislation could erode its judicial independence and expose residents to arbitrary detention and unfair trials in mainland China. Lam, having said that, overlooked the resistance, insisting she was merely closing a “legal loophole”.
The move set off the largest demonstrations on Chinese territory because the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and made the greatest obstacle to Beijing’s rule considering the fact that the city’s 1997 handover.
As law enforcement cracked down, protesters’ calls for expanded to consist of an inquiry into alleged police brutality as nicely as universal suffrage. Some also started to call for Lam’s resignation.
“It was apparent from the term ‘go’ that it was genuinely a disastrous factor to do. Even the pro-establishment was towards it due to the fact it would permit extradition to China. Hong Kongers were being already viewing Beijing flexing its muscular tissues in Hong Kong and this was unquestionably out of the problem,” reported the diplomat.
“This was when the stubbornness and unwillingness to hear really let her down and that lack of political skill. She mainly just experimented with to drive it by way of and that led to the protests. She could have, I firmly believe that, nipped the problem in the bud then. She would’ve had to do two items: just one was withdraw the monthly bill and next was agree to an inquiry into law enforcement conduct.”
In the midst of the turmoil, Lam was recorded at a private occasion declaring she would quit if she had a “choice” and felt torn between serving her “two masters” – the people today of Hong Kong and the central govt in Beijing. She mentioned it still left her with “very, incredibly, very limited” home for manoeuvre.
She also admitted that her need to transform Hong Kong’s legislation experienced “proven to be incredibly unwise” supplied the “huge diploma of concern and anxiety among persons of Hong Kong vis-a-vis the mainland of China, which we had been not sensitive sufficient to truly feel and grasp”.
Lam in the end shelved the bill, but the protests dragged on for months and escalated into progressively violent confrontations involving riot police and helmeted protesters. The demonstrations arrived to a halt only in early 2020 adhering to the coronavirus outbreak in China, but ended up shut down for fantastic in June that calendar year when Beijing imposed national safety laws. The sweeping legislation criminalises something Beijing deems secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with overseas forces with up to life in jail.
Beijing’s conclusion to just take handle of the situation could have even arrive as a relief for Lam, claimed the diplomat, permitting her to tumble again on her acquainted playbook of the hardworking technocrat.
But not with no using a toll, in accordance to her supporters.
“What [Lam’s] gone as a result of in 2019 and 2020, it’s been quite difficult for her,” reported Bernard Chan, who sits on Hong Kong’s govt council and served as Lam’s campaign manager in 2017. “You can envision that it was not straightforward for any leader to have to go via months of unrest and then a COVID-19 lockdown … not to point out she’s been sanctioned. You can picture the stress set on her is unthinkable and that she has to just take it all on herself.”
But Chan mentioned he did not doubt Lam’s intentions to do excellent for Hong Kong.
“She usually has a Hong Kong coronary heart,” he stated. “She wishes to do one thing good for the country and good for Hong Kong.”
Critics, however, say Lam seems to have totally embraced Beijing’s priorities about people of the Hong Kong people today.
Martin Lee, a veteran democracy chief who was found guilty before this year more than protest-linked prices, claimed in an April interview with The Hindu newspaper: “Through the protests in 2019, did we ever see Carrie Lam protect Hong Kong’s system?
“She should have been defending the Primary Law [the city’s mini-constitution] and Hong Kong’s high diploma of autonomy, but in its place she was happily sitting down with Beijing.”
Because the protests, public statements from Lam and the govt of Hong Kong have taken on a sharper patriotic tone, commonly referring to China as the “motherland”. Numerous of Hong Kong’s most outstanding professional-democracy politicians, activists and journalists have been arrested or billed underneath the national safety law.
In the press, Lam has remained unbowed, telling the South China Morning Publish very last November that she does not experience guilty for making an attempt to drive via the extradition bill for the reason that she had carried out “no wrong”.
“I assume in her head, she possibly concluded that larger integration with China is unavoidable,” Tai Wei Lim, a analysis fellow adjunct at the Countrywide College of Singapore East Asian Institute, explained to Al Jazeera.
Lim says the gatherings that unfolded during Lam’s tenure may possibly well spell the conclude for Hong Kong’s political and financial “exceptionalism” and hasten its absorption into the country’s Larger Bay Space task – an bold megalopolis that will unite nine metropolitan areas of southern China into a single financial powerhouse. In this context, he says Lam may well even be getting ready for a foreseeable future role representing Hong Kong in the Chinese Communist Occasion.
When Lam’s assistance for closer ties with the mainland is almost nothing new, her full disregard for main Hong Kong values – steeped in the rule of legislation and freedoms, together with free speech and media – has nevertheless shocked some observers.
“It’s form of perplexing that these [Hong Kong] officers really do not look to have any retention of the open up liberal values they were lifted less than,” reported Davis, the Woodrow Wilson fellow.
“You really do not know whether they just offered their souls for whichever gain they get or irrespective of whether they’ve been converted and think whichever Beijing wishes them to think.”