Just a day before bowing to enormous pressure not to take a pay rise, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, one of the world’s highest paid political leaders, was earnestly assuring the public that there was nothing wrong with her being getting a bonus amidst the dire economic downturn of the coronavirus. She primly pointed out that she was entitled to the money according to a formula agreed in 2017 and that it was line with inflation.

The Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) was due to get an annual salary of HK$5.21 million, up from HK$5.09 million, or to put it another way $434,000 per month, plus almost $1 million in annual expenses and a slew of other benefits including housing.

Carrie Lam. File photo: GovHK.

In the face of a predictable uproar, Lam and her senior officials have now agreed to take a 10 per cent pay cut for a year. This means that she will have to get by on a “mere” $390,833 per month. That is almost 22 times higher than the average salary in Hong Kong. It is also a third more than the salary earned by the president of the United States and about five times what the British Prime Minister earns.

Who, however, can deny that Carrie is worth the extra cash? Her record of handling both the political unrest and the coronavirus crisis is awesome. Who else, in the midst of what’s going on right now, would be taking time out to circulate her thoughts to all the mainstream newspapers?

And who would have thought that she would have been brave enough to use this opportunity to ignore the issues of the day, opting instead to write about the Basic Law and her support for the “One Country, Two Systems” concept. This is out of the box thinking that few could emulate.

File photo: May James.

But really, it’s not just about the money. It’s more about the total political tone deafness of a leader who does not even begin to understand what her job entails. Even former leader Leung Chun-ying quickly opted for a pay cut in 2012 and in the wake of the 2008/9 financial crisis Donald Tsang did not need such heavy prompting to announce that officials would be getting 5.38 per cent less in their pay packets.

Ms Lam seems unable to understand that when urging everyone to pull together to defeat the virus, everybody includes her.

As hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs and are forced into taking unpaid leave, while businesses are collapsing like tenpins, the CENO could not work out why there was a problem over her taking a pay rise.

This is not merely bad politics but a stark reminder of Ms Lam’s total detachment from the people she is supposed to be governing.

File photo: Kelly Ho, HKFP

At every stage of the coronavirus pandemic, Lam has been forced into doing the right thing – from closing the border with mainland China, to rescuing Hongkongers from Wuhan and in committing funds to provide relief for those hit hard by the economic collapse triggered by this severe health crisis.

Even when financial assistance was finally squeezed out of the Scrooge-like government, the CENO and her team of waxworks could not bring themselves to help those most in need.

The unemployed were told that they could always get a pittance from the social security fund. Just because people had been thrown out of work, they said, the victims could hardly expect special assistance.

There was however HK$10,000 on offer to everyone, from the embarrassingly rich to the embarrassingly poor. But it would only be paid at a time most like to help the struggling pro-China parties win the LegCo elections. In other words, a full six months after being announced.

File photo: GovHK.

Anyone with half a brain knew well before the outbreak of protests last year and the coronavirus this year, that Hong Kong’s political system was not fit for purpose. Now we know that it has become little more than a joke in very poor taste.

Just to hammer home the point, the government went back to court last Thursday to reverse a previous ruling on Lam’s face mask ban aimed at protesters, yet coming at a time where official advice is for everyone to wear a face mask.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse.