While it’s not exactly the dystopian future depicted in the award-winning 2015 film “Ten Years,” Hong Kong under the probable leadership of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is already shaping up to be one big clash of values and interests that will only further divide a city already badly riven along social, economic and political lines.

Ten Years. Photo: Ten Years.

Lam’s seemingly unstoppable march to Government House may have begun last week with 580 nominations from the Election Committee – more than three times that of the other two nominees for chief executive, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing and former finance secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, and only 21 short of the number of committee votes required to win the March 26 contest outright – but she runs a poor second to Tsang in public opinion polls and is dogged by protesters everywhere she goes.

Although the former chief secretary insists she is not a political replica of current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who decided not to seek a second term in the face of similar public hostility, Lam’s record so far as another protest magnet does not bode well for her or for the city she hopes to lead.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Carrie Lam.

The great irony of Lam’s lack of public support is that, by any objective measurement, she is by far the most able of the three CE candidates. Woo enjoyed a distinguished career as a judge and did admirable work during his 13 years as chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, but he is a political novice without a clue about how to govern a troubled city. And while Tsang has made all the right PR noises about localism and defending Hong Kong’s core values of freedom of speech and the rule of law, his actual record for the last nine years as finance chief is one of such mediocrity that it could be used as a textbook example of the Peter Principle at work in a dysfunctional government bureaucracy that the city’s best and brightest now avoid like the plague.

By contrast, Lam has built a reputation for energetic leadership and competence no matter what government position she held. It is easy to forget, tarred as she now is for being part of CY’s legacy of division and deceit, that as development secretary in the administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – a post in which she led a crackdown on illegal structures that villagers in the New Territories had come to regard as their birthright- Lam was once the government’s most popular minister. Before that, she earned praise for her work as the director of the Social Welfare Department and as permanent secretary for the Home Affairs Bureau.

Queen’s Pier demolition. Photo: Wikicommons.

Although Lam provoked the ire of conservationists during her time as development secretary for the demolition of two historic landmarks- the Edinburgh Place Pier for the Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier- to make way for land reclamation, it was not until she became Leung’s chief secretary that her popularity plummeted to new lows. And that should come as no surprise.

As Leung’s No. 2, Lam was responsible for publicly justifying and defending her boss – whether that involved the ill-fated campaign for patriotic national education (shelved in 2012, after repeated protests), the badly misnamed “political reform” package that prompted the 79-day Occupy Central campaign in 2014 or her more recent pledge to sustain Leung’s “governing vision” if she is elected as his successor.

From the central government’s point of view, Lam has been a capable and loyal chief secretary, doing everything, no matter how unpopular and distasteful, asked of her during the most turbulent years Hong Kong has witnessed since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule. Tsang, on the other hand, has openly split with Leung and, according to reports, gone against the wishes of the Chinese leadership in joining the race for chief executive.

Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Kris Cheng.

The decision to back Lam and direct the Election Committee (most of whose 1,194 members take their marching orders from Beijing) to vote in her favour was reportedly made as high up as China’s ruling seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Hong Kong’s pan-democrats managed to seize a record number (326) of committee seats this time around, but even if they vote as a bloc for Tsang as the people’s choice, the math still doesn’t add up for him unless pro-Beijing committee members betray their masters in the secret ballot.

Thus, barring some dramatic development, Tsang’s CE campaign, despite his public support, is doomed to fail and Lam’s victory is likely to be a pyrrhic one that leaves her in the impossible position of leading a city that doesn’t want her.

Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people must hope that Chinese leaders eventually wisen up and stop hobbling Hong Kong CEs and their ministers with their blatant interference in the city’s affairs – electoral and otherwise.

The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

Beyond the concerted effort to foist Lam on a population that has given her an emphatic thumbs-down, the city has also recently seen, thanks to Beijing’s increasingly visible hand, an alarming erosion of those core values to which Tsang at least bothers to pay lip service. Following an entirely unwarranted interpretation of the Basic Law provision on oath-taking by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, two elected Hong Kong legislators were unseated for their lack of patriotism, and four more are presently embroiled in a court case that could see them lose their seats as well.

Moreover, five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared into secret detention centres across the border to the mainland from October to December of 2015 and, just last month, Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who holds Canadian citizenship, went missing from his luxury suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in the city’s Central District. He, too, is now reportedly “assisting in an investigation” on the mainland.

No, it’s not a “Ten Years”-style apocalypse, but it’s bad enough.


Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.