Carrie Lam: what we know about Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect

By on 10/04/2017 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Carrie Lam,chief executive-elect, Hong Kong (Image courtesy Iris Tong)

She may be Hong Kong’s first female leader, but the election of pro-establishment, Beijing-backed Carrie Lam spells more of the same for those fighting for greater democracy and autonomy in the region.

Lam was pronounced chief executive-elect on Sunday, after gaining 777 votes out of a possible 1,194 – more than double that of her main rival, former financial secretary John Tsang, who consistently outperformed her in public opinion polls.

Despite China’s commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework that guarantees Hong Kong the right to independent courts, a free press and a capitalist financial system, only the 1,194 pre-approved members of the election committee – which critics say is dominated by elites loyal to Beijing – are allowed to vote in leadership elections.

A new leader must meet certain requirements, including having the trust of China’s Communist party leaders. Critics say Lam has demonstrated obedience to Beijing over the years, including during the 2014 pro-democracy protests.

In her victory speech on 26 March, Lam said: “Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustration. My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration – and to unite our society to move forward.”

She promised to uphold the region’s values, such as freedom of speech and respect for human rights, as well as “systems which have taken generations to establish, such as the independent judiciary, rule of law, and clean government”.

She also committed to “attract talent widely and on merit” when forming her governance team, and to choose people “regardless of political affiliation”.

An exodus of civil servants?

But as it became clear that Lam was the favourite to win Hong Kong’s election, rumours emerged that senior government officials plan to quit when she takes office because they have a problem with her management style.

An anonymous article, written by someone claiming to be a former civil servant who had worked with Lam, argues that she lacks team spirit, and that she failed to do enough to tackle the affordable housing crisis as development secretary under former chief executive Donald Tsang.

Politician Emily Lau, a former member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, a lawmaking body, warned of “an exodus of administrative officers”, including at least three permanent secretaries, should Lam be elected.

Lau, speaking directly to Lam on Lau’s online talk show on 16 March, cited sources who’d told her that civil servants are “frustrated and worried” because Lam refuses to listen to others’ opinions.

In response, Lam said she did not have a problematic relationship with any civil servants, adding that “recently the political environment has become very complicated, top-level colleagues face a lot of pressure”.

A former civil servant herself who served as permanent secretary of the Home Affairs Bureau before switching to become a politically appointed official, Lam succeeds Leung Chun-ying, who was an unpopular leader known for his hardline approach.

Lam is likely to be sworn in by Chinese president Xi Jinping on 1 July, the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover, when the British transferred sovereignty of Hong Kong to China. She will serve a five-year term.

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About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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