Carrie Lam's disastrous legacy in Hong Kong

4 April 2022

10:31 PM

4 April 2022

10:31 PM

When Carrie Lam became Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, she positioned herself as a candidate for unity. Five years on, having announced this morning her decision to step down, she will be remembered as Hong Kong’s most divisive leader.

There is a grim irony that Lam – who was Beijing’s favoured choice for the top job – used ‘WeConnect’ as a campaign slogan. If that was her hope, it is hard to think of a politician who has failed in their ambitions more profoundly. Lam’s stubborn insistence in pushing through a wildly unpopular extradition bill in 2019, which would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to the mainland, did overwhelmingly unify Hong Kongers, if only against her. At one protest, as many as one in three people in the city marched in protest. In local elections in 2019, the democrats won an unprecedented landslide in what was perceived as a vote of no confidence for Lam’s government. Trust in the Hong Kong government and the city’s police force plummeted to record lows as tear gas and batons were used to bludgeon people into silence. Lam, a woman who claimed she wanted to listen, appeared deaf to the will of the Hong Kong public.

As 2019 turned to 2020, Lam’s authority was stripped; on sensitive political matters, Beijing started to take control independently of her, possibly as a result of her failure to lead and be sensitive to the Hong Kong public. The National Security Law, introduced unilaterally by Beijing in the summer of 2020, was implemented without consulting the Hong Kong executive. There were moments where one almost felt pity for Lam as she was forced to defend the National Security Law in the spring of 2020 despite having never seen it herself.

Having run on a platform which emphasised the importance of listening to Hong Kongers, the passage of the National Security Law meant Lam was now presiding over a system which ignored the voice of Hong Kong’s people. On 6 January 2021, hours before protestors marched on the Capitol building in DC, a blow was struck against democracy in Hong Kong when all of the democratic politicians who had stood in primary elections were rounded up and arrested for subversion. Their crime? Standing on an opposition slate. Hong Kong, under Lam’s watch, moved from a flawed pluralist state to one where all the opposition were now in jail, exile or on trial.

Her manifesto promised to consolidate Hong Kong’s international reputation, but the political turmoil combined with the fumbled handling of the coronavirus crisis has led to the collapse of the city’s international standing. Britain, viewing China – and by extension Hong Kong – to be in breach of its handover commitments has withdrawn foreign judges and offered potentially millions of Hong Kongers a pathway out of the city. The United States revoked the city’s privileged status and placed Lam on a Magnitsky sanctions list. MPs in Britain have called for the United Kingdom to do the same. Lam is rumoured to have family and property in the United Kingdom; given her role in the crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms, some may assess that she, too, should be sanctioned.

Now she is stepping down, what next? The signs are hardly encouraging about her successors. Tipped in the lead is John Lee. A former policeman, Lee would likely be a willing enforcer of Hong Kong’s new totalitarian regime. His campaign slogan is more likely to be ‘WeProsecute’ than ‘WeConnect’. Another candidate is the controversial former leader CY Leung. It was under his divisive leadership that major protests first broke out in 2012 and 2014. He is nearly as unpopular as Lam among the Hong Kong people and is even more ardently pro-Communist.

During Lam’s tenure, Hong Kong has fundamentally changed for the worst: the one-country, two-systems settlement has been destroyed for good. With Beijing now firmly in the driving seat in the city, the end of her term in one sense matters little, but it is a moment to remember the terrible events of recent years. Lam will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

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