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Hall of infamy: Carrie Lam

Hong Kong
China

JOB: Chief Executive of Hong Kong

REPUTATION: Yea-sayer to Beijing’s authoritarianism

No-one can accuse Carrie Lam of not taking her duties seriously. She shows an almost obsessive dedication to maintaining law and order and imposing a ruthless Chinese sovereignty over a recalcitrant Hong Kong. She is a notorious micro-manager, unwilling to allow even a modicum of autonomy to her subordinates. She boasts of having to sleep only three to five hours a night and has given up badminton, her sole recreation, as all that changing clothes and showering just takes up too much valuable time away from official duties.

The 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from a British colony to a special administrative region of China, based on ‘one country, two systems’, has played out as a fraught affair riddled with contradictions. As autocracy in the guise of Chinese capitalism shows no sign of relenting, the pressure to clamp down on public freedom in Hong Kong has gathered force. Lam, a career bureaucrat-turned-politician with roots in both Britain and Beijing, is at the helm of this repression as it reaches critical mass.

A devout Catholic, Lam quickly developed a reputation for being a hard-working and committed technocrat. Throughout her methodical rise to prominence she unfailingly sided with those in power and against those who dared resist. After being appointed Secretary for Development in 2007, she beat back conservationists who wanted to preserve the city’s landmark Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, took on housing rights advocates to push through her Urban Renewal Strategy and cracked down on indigenous villages in the New Territories section of Hong Kong. She quickly gained the reputation as a ‘hard fighter’ used to getting her own way, gaining the attention of the powers that be in Beijing.

Lam was ‘elected’ Chief Executive in 2017 (by a 1,200 member committee) in a rigged system that ensured Beijing’s veto over the popular will of Hongkongers. At the time it was widely held that the Umbrella Movement that had mobilized Hong Kong against Beijing’s electoral manipulations in 2014 was a spent force. But this calculation failed to take into account the ineptitude and lack of political skills of a Carrie Lam more used to bureaucratic decree than gaining consent through the give-and-take of coalition building. She threw herself behind an extradition law aimed to circumvent Hong Kong’s semi-independent judicial system and put troublemakers on trial before the rubber-stamp judges of the mainland. The reaction was quick and predictable with masses of Hongkongers (particularly the young) regularly hitting the streets in defence of the city’s autonomy. Predictable too was the escalation in violence as police teargas and rubber bullets rained down on the increasingly desperate demonstrations. Hong Kong’s police force, once lionized for its efficiency and integrity, is now seen as little more than a marauding band of occupying enforcers. For both the Chinese Communist Party leadership and the order-obsessed Lam any form of social disorder (read public exercise of political views) is tantamount to major crime. Over 10,000 have been arrested and many more brutalized.

It is worth remembering that the current anti-Covid-19 measures being used to suppress opposition in Hong Kong have been enacted using British colonial-era emergency legislation. During the 150 years of British rule, the authorities supported a liberal economic order (the city was seized as a conduit for the opium trade) but were decidedly undemocratic in their exercise of political power – not unlike the model advocated by the Chinese Communist Party today. In the 1960s those opposed to British rule were routinely arrested and sometimes killed by Hong Kong police. Figures like Carrie Lam are very much a product of an undemocratic bureaucracy fostered by British colonial policy.

LOW CUNNING: Lam has cloaked her arbitrary actions and the closing of democratic space in Hong Kong in her claim: ‘I do not want to give the people false hope.’ Patterning herself as a mainland Party apparatchik, she is committed to removing not just rights but the hope for rights.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: The dour Lam set off a firestorm of jokes when she portrayed herself as mother to ‘spoiled children’, ie democracy protesters. It wasn’t long before ‘Big Mother is Watching You’ signs and posters started to pop up all over town.

Sources: Coconuts Hong Kong; The Guardian; The Atlantic; Yahoo News; The Oriental Despot; Reuters; BBC; South China Morning Post.

New Internationalist issue 529 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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