In a slightly different world, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam would be remembered as a great city leader. That reputation would have been sealed this year with her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using a smart system of travel quarantines and contact tracing and detailed management of safety procedures, the densely packed island city of 7.5 million has so far experienced barely more than 100 deaths, without having to resort to severe lockdowns.
Her policy know-how and aggressively hands-on approach have made her an impressive manager of the nuts and bolts of urban life, from the provision of public toilets to its systems of municipal welfare, all delivered with an articulate, Cambridge-educated clarity.
But that is not how Carrie Lam will be remembered.
On Wednesday, Ms. Lam’s real legacy was on display like never before. Her annual policy address to the city’s legislative council should have been a showcase of those nuts-and-bolts plans and accomplishments. But those technicalities were overwhelmed by, and subsumed into, her all-consuming message of support for Beijing’s legal seizure of the city and crushing of its democratic and legal institutions.
In June, China’s Communist Party government passed its Hong Kong National Security Law, which bypasses the territory’s legal and democratic institutions in order to outlaw any people or activities that are condemned, under vague terms, as supporting “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” or “collusion with foreign or external forces.”
Because perceived offences are now prosecuted using Beijing-appointed judges under mainland China’s legal system (which, as Canadians know, is far from just or transparent), and because the law allows companies to be prosecuted, it also jeopardizes Hong Kong’s role as a centre of international business and finance. It’s so devastating to the essence of the city’s cultural and economic life that it is hard to imagine any self-respecting Hong Kong politician supporting it.
On Wednesday, however, Ms. Lam celebrated this law as an end to “chaos” and called for the restoration of a “sense of national identity and awareness of national security” amid the city’s “return to the motherland.”
More telling than the address itself was the milieu in which she delivered it. For the first time anyone could remember, the legislative council – the city’s elected body – was not a boisterous scene of claim and counterclaim, protest and dissent, where political factions try to hash out the city’s future.
That’s because the entire caucus of pro-democracy legislators quit the council two weeks ago, after the Chinese government’s highest body passed a law that barred anyone from sitting on the city legislature who is deemed insufficiently loyal to Beijing or excessively independence-minded. Ms. Lam’s government immediately banned four popular legislators for being “unpatriotic,” and the rest quit their seats in protest.
As a result, Ms. Lam’s Wednesday speech seemed uncannily like one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s annual addresses to the National People’s Congress, in both content and setting.
With any opposition voices banished or quit, the rump of Beijing-loyal legislators sat silently through the long and often doctrinaire address. One of them fell asleep. Others stared at their phones, some reading a breaking news story about the one who fell asleep. The city’s once-lively council, now a rubber-stamp chamber for the national government’s decrees, lowered that stamp with a deadening thud.
A few former deputies, watching this theatre of acquiescence unfold, wondered what had happened to Carrie Lam. When she came to office in 2017, she had spoken of fulfilling the constitution’s promise to make Hong Kong fully democratic. Though never a democracy activist, she was seen as a conciliator – and remembered as someone who had been a prominent and loyal official in the British administration of Hong Kong between 1980 and Britain’s handover of the territory to Beijing in 1997. She had even spoken, as recently as 2017, of retiring to the English countryside.
That changed in 2019, when she provoked a paralyzing year-long protest movement by backing a bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland and its legal system. When she cancelled that bill in September, 2019, some thought it showed a willingness to compromise.
Nobody harbours such thoughts any more. Not after this month’s events. She has turned Hong Kong into a place from which the best people have to flee, simply because she was asked to do so. If there were indeed hints at Ms. Lam’s current trajectory in her history, they were ultimately in her past as an unquestioning colonial administrator. The tragedy of Carrie Lam is not that she has failed, but that she has been very successful at a job whose only real requirement is to please whichever distant ruler wields the real power.
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