Outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying seems to be doing his level best to make it impossible for his successor to follow through on her pledge to heal and unify a bitterly divided Hong Kong.

Indeed, as former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor prepares to move into Government House on July 1 with promises of a more inclusive government and a new spirit of cooperation and conciliation between the executive and legislative branches, Leung carries on with his divide-and-conquer master plan.

Leung Chun-ying and Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

One might hope that, during this critical transitional period, Leung would swallow his wounded pride and make the handover of power as seamless as possible for Lam. Instead, his administration stubbornly insists on maintaining an unpopular, mind-numbing testing scheme for primary three pupils that she – along with a majority of the 70 members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), including some from the pro-establishment bloc – firmly opposes.

Moreover, in an act that no one believes was coincidental, the Hong Kong police chose the day after Lam’s decisive election victory (she won the votes of 777 of the 1,194 Election Committee members) to charge nine leaders of the 2014 Occupy movement with creating a public nuisance, a rarely employed indictment pulled from a dusty closet of Hong Kong’s colonial past especially for this occasion.

Let’s also remember that, thanks to an earlier Leung administration legal initiative, four pro-democracy lawmakers are currently on trial for violating the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance last October, when they turned their swearing-in formalities into anti-government protests. Depending on the verdict, they may soon be booted out of Legco, joining the previously ousted Youngspiration duo of Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching in legislative exile.

So much for calls for healing and unity in Hong Kong. This feels more like war.

Unfortunately, it’s a war Lam will inherit come July. Will she lower the battle flags or keep charging forward into a deepening pit of partisan conflict?

Four lawmakers facing legal challenges (L-R): Nathan Law, Edward Yiu, Lau Siu-lai, Leung Kwok-hung. Photo: Lau Siu-lai via Facebook.

Consider this: As Lam assumes office, possible jail sentences will loom for the principal Occupy organisers – Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and Dr Chan Kin-man. Meanwhile, one or more of the four lawmakers on trial for allegedly violating their oaths of office – Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Edward Yiu Chung-yim and Lau Siu-lai – may have been unseated, placing a toxic seal on Leung’s five years in office.

Given that scenario, the political atmosphere would be so poisoned that no leader who is human could be expected to bring together the feuding factions of Hong Kong – let alone a figure handpicked by Beijing who trailed her chief rival, former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, by nearly 20 points in public opinion polls leading up to the small-circle election.

Of course, conspiracy theorists who denounce Lam as “C.Y. 2.0” think that she, Leung and the central government’s liaison office are all acting in perfectly choreographed unison to eradicate the words “independence” and “self-determination” from the Hong Kong vocabulary while also delivering a serious body blow to the pan-democratic camp in LegCo. But they give too much credit to each of the supposedly conspiring parties.

It’s true that both the Hong Kong and central governments want to stamp out calls for independence and keep the pan-dems at bay, but disagreements about the methods and strategies to be used to this end are also apparent; otherwise, Leung would be starting his second term on July 1 and Lam would be easing into the retirement she had planned before Beijing tapped her on the proverbial shoulder.

Lam would prefer not to inherit the leadership of a city that is even more torn by political strife and protest than it was before her election—yet that very well may be what she gets.

A protest against Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Leung’s actions over the past week amount to a combative assertion that, although Hong Kong has chosen a new leader, for the next three months he is still in charge and will be calling the shots in his uniquely antipathetic way. That cannot please Lam, who spent last week reaching rather than lashing out.

Leung’s aggressive moves against rebel lawmakers and the Occupy leaders no doubt please the hard-line mandarins in Beijing, however – and, lest we forget, they are the ones who truly matter. The real question, then, is not what Lam plans to do for Hong Kong over the next five years but, rather, what the leadership in Beijing will allow her to do. She is not “C.Y. 2.0,” but she may be required to act like one.

Lam, a devout Catholic, has said that God directed her to enter the race for chief executive despite her lack of popular support and her poor prospects of success if she won. Maybe this is her fatalistic Catholic way of telling us that, in a battle between God and the Communist Party of China, we all know the party is going to win.

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.