How Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam mishandled the response to the protests and the coronavirus
In the mid-1970s, a bright young girl became head prefect of a Catholic girls’ school near the lush foothills of Hong Kong. She approached a teacher for advice on how to manage her naughtier classmates.
“You don’t control; you inspire,” the teacher replied.
That girl would go on to become the first woman to lead Hong Kong — but to say she’s failed to inspire is an understatement. Instead, she’s become one of the most hated figures there since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has sparked one of the biggest political crises in the territory in decades and antagonized generations of people who feel profoundly disenfranchised. She pushed a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, fueling fears that anyone in Hong Kong could be directly exposed to China’s notorious criminal justice system.
The movement against the bill turned into a broader struggle for democracy and police accountability, and presented one of the greatest challenges yet to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The unrest spiraled into an orgy of clashes between police officers who called protesters “cockroaches” and activists armed with bricks and Molotov cocktails, many of whom believed this was their last chance to fight back against Hong Kong’s disappearing autonomy. Large swaths of its Bladerunner-like landscape became covered in exasperated political graffiti — and, less visibly, tear gas residue.
Now, the coronavirus thought to have originated in central China and currently circulating around communities in Hong Kong has further fueled panic.
Lam had the opportunity to salvage her legacy by skillfully responding to the viral outbreak. But her administration’s relatively lax approach and its inability to ward off a public health crisis in Hong Kong, which is already scarred by the SARS outbreak in 2003, left many further convinced that she is incapable of acting in the public interest.
Under Lam’s watch, trust in the government has been shattered by the double whammy of historic protests and the epidemic.
The consequences of her miscalculations are far-reaching. On January 11, as Beijing’s perceived authoritarian overreach in Hong Kong hung over Taiwan, the self-ruled island reelected Tsai Ing-wen as president, dealing another blow to the Chinese Communist Party. And now, by early March, Hong Kong has recorded more than 100 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as its battered economy takes another hit and jobs are put in peril.
The story of Carrie Lam is the story of a leader who once set out to inspire through hard work and loyalty, but has instead helped unravel Hong Kong’s social contract and sharpen its deepest contradictions.
From activist to authoritarian puppet
Once upon a time, Carrie Lam was idealistic and even took part in social activism. A look at her rise to power shows how her strength might have ultimately become a weakness that resulted in her spectacular downfall.
Lam was the fourth of five children, and her family shared a flat with several other households when she was young. That apartment was so cramped, she used her bunk bed as a standing desk. She was an overachiever: One time, in high school, she was so distraught over placing fourth in class that she was reduced to tears.
Soon, though, she snapped back to the top and became head prefect, tasked with disciplining her fellow students.
Her early aspiration to become a social worker — inspired by a character in a television series — led her to enroll at the prestigious University of Hong Kong. She was a well-known student activist in her undergraduate years, showing a special interest in poverty-related issues. Lee Wing-tat, a former pro-democracy lawmaker and classmate in the year above who knew her through their student activism, described her as idealistic but also dead serious: He said he’d never seen her laugh more than five times in 40 years.
She came close to being arrested once, Lee recalled, when she was part of a group that was trying to fight for better housing rights for a community of Hongkongers residing on boats that was especially vulnerable to deadly typhoons.
Around 10 of her fellow student activists were arrested for unlawful assembly while she waited for them to reach Hong Kong’s main island on a bus to present a petition, Lee said. That charge — unlawful assembly — is now leveled by her government at dozens of protesters from last year’s unrest, while hundreds faced the more serious charge of rioting.
“When she was a student, she sided with people with no power,” Lee said. “Now she’s siding with people with the most power.”
Lam decided to join the government instead of pursuing a career in social work after graduation. “In order to influence the lives of many, you still need to rely on the functions of a government,” she told the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po. The government funded her postgraduate studies at Cambridge, where she met her husband, a retired mathematician. He and her two sons reportedly have UK citizenship, but she renounced hers in 2007 when she took up the senior post of development secretary.
Her humble origins did not save her from the elitist air that has made her so unlikable to many. In what she probably thought would be humanizing gaffes during her election campaign in 2017, she let out that she didn’t know where to buy toilet paper, which predictably backfired. In another Hillary Clinton-esque moment, she was caught struggling to get through a subway turnstile.
Lee, who was able to observe her trajectory throughout the years, said she became increasingly arrogant and “supercilious” as she climbed up the bureaucracy. She saw herself as a know-all technocrat, he said, and was dismissive of other people’s opinions, including the more junior legislators.
“She has become overconfident. In fact, this is what made her think she could pass the extradition bill (last year): ‘What is it that I cannot do in my decades-long career as a civil servant?’” Lee observed.
The smiling tiger
In late 2016, Lam was serving as the No. 2 official in Hong Kong, a post she had held for more than four years. She was planning to retire soon and was looking forward to spending more time with her family.
But then her boss, the polarizing and fervently pro-Beijing incumbent chief executive Leung Chun-ying, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection after failing to secure the Chinese government’s blessing, upending Lam’s retirement plans.
Beijing needed someone who was going to win not just marginally, according to observers, and support for Leung appeared thin even within the establishment. Lam, on the other hand, was seen as a “smiling tiger”: a softer face that would still take a hard line.
Lam scrambled to put together a campaign and formally announced she would run just two months before the election, a challenge even for somebody known within the government as an efficient workhorse.
In her manifesto, she made an ambitious pitch to voters: She promised to improve the economy and people’s livelihood, including fixing the dire housing situation and creating greater upward mobility for young people. When she announced her campaign in January 2017, she told a fresh college graduate who had written to her: “Should I decide to accept the challenge, you can be sure that I am doing it for the younger generation like you.”
But her promise of a bright future for Hong Kong’s youth came with a major, unspoken caveat. Hong Kong’s leader is selected by a 1,200-member nomination committee stacked with Beijing loyalists. As someone who is handpicked by Beijing and nominally serves both the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong’s people, she has limited power over the land she runs.
It is not exactly a coveted job — having to be faithful to Beijing and appease local pro-Beijing hardliners while also dealing with a furious opposition and a sophisticated public — but it’s among the highest-paid government roles in the world. Lam, now 62, makes US$568,400 a year.
Unlike the men who previously held the job, though, Lam wasn’t a member of the business elite, nor was she mired in corruption scandals.
Her predecessor was investigated over undeclared multimillion-dollar payments from an Australian firm (Beijing eventually backed him over the former frontrunner, a billionaire’s son who had extramarital affairs and an illicitly constructed basement allegedly furnished with a wine cellar and a Japanese bath that caused a stir in space-starved Hong Kong).
Before that came a more popular, well-connected, longtime civil servant who was jailed for misconduct over undeclared dealings with a business tycoon (the conviction was ultimately quashed). Preceding him, the first Hong Kong-Chinese leader after colonial rule ended was the son of a shipping magnate.
Carrie Lam, by comparison, was born into a low-income family and still doesn’t own a home in Hong Kong — unusual for a government heavyweight in the world’s most expensive housing market. But perhaps she never really had to: She joined the colonial civil service straight out of university in 1980, which came with housing benefits, and she never left government.
Lam rose through the ranks quickly and earned a reputation for being ho da duk, or a “good fighter.” Today, she is reportedly still a workaholic. Inside her private quarters at her official residence, the Government House, she has a room that painstakingly replicates her real office. In a rare interview, she told the Financial Times the best thing about living there is that “you can combine work and private life.”
But her authoritarian streak was apparent even when she was still serving as chief secretary, the second-most-powerful position in government. Unlike other top officials — including the leader himself — who apologized for a lead water scandal that gripped Hong Kong in 2015, Lam refused to say sorry.
She said at the time that officials “do not have to bear personal responsibility” because, while the scandal reflected flaws within the government, it did not necessarily mean that they were neglecting duties or flouting laws.
In 2017, Beijing favored her over main rival John Tsang, the former finance minister nicknamed “Mr. Pringles” after his resemblance to the potato chip mascot. He was supported even by some members of the pro-democracy voting bloc as a practical choice. A more moderate establishment figure, he was different from Lam in key ways: affable, too Westernized in Beijing’s view (went to MIT and Harvard, likes French movies), too laid-back and conciliatory (Beijing needs a tougher proxy).
If correspondence with spouses offers a glimpse into one’s personality, consider that on Valentine’s Day in 2017, as the election candidates were campaigning at full steam, Lam’s husband wrote a public letter that wished her luck in “contributing to the implementation of ‘one country, two systems,’” referring to the deal under which semi-autonomous Hong Kong is governed.
Lam may have a reputation as being humorless and not much of a crowd-pleaser, but her supporters liked to laud her for getting things done and not being afraid to crack the whip. Chinese leaders need a capable bureaucrat to run Hong Kong and further subsume it into Beijing’s orbit through policymaking and economic integration.
Most important to Beijing, she is loyal. It is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personal ambition to develop Hong Kong’s Greater Bay Area — by linking Hong Kong and its semi-autonomous neighbor Macao with a cluster of southern Chinese cities — into a technological and economic powerhouse that rivals the San Francisco Bay Area and the New York metropolitan area. This requires the fealty of Hong Kong’s elite.
When asked last year which political leader she admired the most, Lam named Xi, around the same time he was abolishing term limits on the presidency and was poised to stay in power for life. She called him “charismatic.” Some analysts, meanwhile, have warned about the cult of personality, outlawed after the death of Mao Zedong, that Xi appeared to be cultivating.
Lam enjoyed higher approval ratings than her predecessor when she first took office, but they slipped steadily as she oversaw welfare cuts for older people and serious deteriorations in Hong Kong’s freedoms and norms — including the banning of a small pro-independence political party, the effective expulsion of a senior Financial Times journalist, and an agreement that ceded land inside a train station to mainland Chinese jurisdiction.
Following the extradition saga and the viral outbreak, her rating is now lower than any previous Hong Kong leader by a large margin.
Here’s how that happened.
How Lam accidentally sparked an uprising
Lam insists that the controversial extradition bill that sparked the protest movement was her initiative to seek justice for a murder victim; other reports, however, have suggested that the true impetus for the bill came not from Lam but from the Chinese government in Beijing, which has long pushed for such a law.
Either way, when a Hong Kong citizen fled back there in 2018 after killing his pregnant girlfriend in neighboring Taiwan, Lam saw a rare opportunity that would fulfill Beijing’s wishes: to overhaul Hong Kong’s laws so that suspects can be transferred to other jurisdictions around the world, including Taiwan and mainland China.
Hong Kong has historically balked at that idea, though, due in large part to grave concerns about China’s judicial system. As Vox’s Jen Kirby explains:
Critics worried that China would take advantage of this law to arbitrarily detain Hongkongers — such as those who openly dissent against the Chinese government or advocate for human rights. One pro-democracy lawmaker called it a “dragnet over all of Hong Kong.”
The amendments would apply retroactively, meaning thousands of people who may have angered mainland China with a supposed past crime could be at risk of facing trial there.
The extradition rule changes were particularly fraught because China is accused of kidnapping people from outside its borders — including from Hong Kong, where it isn’t supposed to have jurisdiction — and essentially disappearing them to China. That would normally violate international law. But this bill would give China legal cover to do so.
The proposed bill triggered massive street protests, but Lam steadfastly refused to back down. Even after an estimated 1 million people marched against it in June, Lam refused to withdraw the bill.
Later that week, Lam announced that she was “suspending” — but not formally withdrawing — the bill. It wasn’t enough: An estimated 1.7 million people, a quarter of Hong Kong’s population, took to the streets the following day, angered by Lam’s half-measure and what they saw as heavy-handed police tactics during clashes outside the parliament building days earlier.
The protest movement only continued to grow, and Hong Kong ultimately saw its most sustained protests in decades, including a series of creative, peaceful protests and labor strikes along with violent street battles with riot police who were accused of acting with impunity and breaking their own rules.
In September, Lam finally announced the bill would be formally withdrawn, but that move was widely decried as too little, too late.
In a leaked audio recording made public the night before she would announce the bill’s ultimate fate, Lam was heard chiding herself in unusually frank remarks during a private meeting with a group of businesspeople a week earlier. “For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said in the recording, obtained by Reuters. “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology, is to step down.”
These private comments stood in stark contrast with her public posturing, setting off speculation that Beijing was not allowing her to step down with no suitable successor immediately available.
“She definitely feels very responsible for this mess,” one of Lam’s top aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me in November. “She’s committed to fixing it. If needed for her to fix the issue, she will stay on. But I can assure you, she’s prepared to step down immediately too,” the aide said.
But in reality, what she’s done is repeatedly condemn violence on the part of the protesters and throw her unconditional support behind the police — in lockstep with Beijing’s rhetoric. She has written off political solutions, including setting up an independent probe into the police’s handling of the protests, a key demand of the movement that is also widely supported by the public, including some pro-Beijing figures.
Lam’s response to the protests not only exposed but also defined the limits of her authority and independence from Beijing.
“If she wasn’t completely clueless,” Suzanne Pepper, an expert on Hong Kong politics, told me, Lam might have been able to “convey Beijing’s meaning without simply memorizing Beijing’s words like a catechism and repeating them whenever asked … and without insulting the intelligence of the Hong Kong public.”
But, Pepper continued, “She was trained in the conventions of an established colonial bureaucracy. Her mindset has not evolved beyond that world she first mastered when she joined the colonial service.”
Instead of firing Lam over the unrest, Beijing recently announced a major leadership reshuffle for Hong Kong and appointed two known hardliners who had no experience dealing with the former British colony but are both trusted by President Xi, signaling a fresh chapter of even tighter control.
Xia Baolong, who served as Xi’s deputy in the mid-2000s and later became known for his crackdown on Christian churches, will now lead the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in China’s cabinet. Luo Huining, who in recent years enforced Xi’s campaign to purge corruption in a graft-ridden province, was chosen to direct Beijing’s liaison office based in Hong Kong and to act as Xia’s deputy.
By replacing the two most senior Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs as the first order of business while leaving Lam in place, the shake-up showed “where the real power lies in Hong Kong,” writes Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based author. “Beijing chose to replace the puppet masters, rather than the puppet.”
The coronavirus outbreak presented an opportunity for Lam. She squandered it.
In late November, millions of Hongkongers channeled their rage against Lam’s administration by turning out in historic numbers and voting overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates in local district elections.
Yet beyond scrapping the bill, Lam has repeatedly said she will not respond to the protest movement’s other core demands, including investigating police actions and pursuing democratic reforms — the very reasons people continued to protest for months after the bill was killed in September.
But then the coronavirus outbreak hit Hong Kong and largely brought society to a standstill. The protests that had become a regular feature of daily life there have for now devolved into much smaller flare-ups.
In some ways, the coronavirus could’ve offered Lam a chance to win back some of the public’s trust and goodwill. With the street protests entering a relative lull, she could have shown the public she was willing to listen humbly to her people.
Instead, Lam only gradually closed border crossings, fueling speculation among her critics that she was acting out of political considerations and taking care not to offend her bosses in Beijing.
She rejected growing demands to temporarily bar arrivals from mainland China and called the move “discriminatory,” though it was backed by leading medical experts and even some influential pro-Beijing politicians.
Only after Hong Kong reported its first death from the virus and thousands of medical workers risked retribution to go on an unprecedented strike in early February to pressure the government did Lam finally order a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all travelers entering through the mainland.
Once again, like the axing of the extradition bill, it may have come too late. Many saw her administration’s slow and incremental response to the outbreak as more evidence that Lam is putting politics above public safety and interest.
The public’s deepening distrust of the authorities manifested in unexpected ways. Trying to take ownership of their own safety and falling victim to rumors, many Hongkongers turned to panic-buying, sparking a run on toilet paper and rice at one point — and even heists on such coveted commodities.
With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Lam is now facing yet another serious challenge to her ability to lead Hong Kong. Its existential problems existed long before she became chief executive and will continue after she leaves office, either prematurely or when her term finishes in 2022. And as of right now, there’s no sign she plans to step down early.
But after a lifetime of carrying out orders and mastering routines, her bid for control has ultimately stripped her of credibility.
Elaine Yu is a journalist based in Hong Kong. She has written for publications including the New York Times, NewYorker.com, Dissent Magazine, and the Intercept. Find her on Twitter @yuenok.