Carrie Lam’s singular contribution to Hong Kong politics has been to keep demonstrating that it is possible to have a Chief Executive who is even more disliked than her predecessor Leung Chun-ying.

Her popularity ratings have slumped to a level that would have seen her dispatched long ago in any kind of democratically-elected government. However in Hong Kong’s system Lam’s essential election constituency consists of one person – President Xi Jinping.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

He is sticking with her not just because all other candidates for her job are dismal but because to admit that every single handpicked Chief Executive has been a failure is an admission too far.

So, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO) struggles on, unloved even by those who used to describe themselves as being members of the pro-government camp but who now prefer the appellation of being pro-China.

Every time that the CENO hits a new low there is a nervous assumption that she cannot plunge further. Yet she has the uncanny knack of proving that there is no bottom to her list of failures.

Asked last week whether she would stand up for Hong Kong after stating that it was inevitable that Shenzhen would take the lead in the Greater Bay Area, Lam did what she does best. She blamed the people for misunderstanding her position while doing nothing whatsoever to prove that she had in fact been misinterpreted.

And then, because it is what she does, she managed to top this in a joint interview with members of ‘reliable’ media organisations. She said she had become “immune” to criticism and rhetorically asked : “Why allocate and spend time to read, to listen [to critics] and to be unhappy?”

This is the same Lam, who just a year ago firmly promised to “listen humbly” in order to “find a way out” of Hong Kong’s problems.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam in an interview with broadcaster TVB on June 12, 2019. Photo: TVB screenshot.

The CENO, in truth, not only ignores critics but rarely listens to her own advisers unless they are telling her what she wants to hear. Colleagues who have worked with her over the years, well before she became Chief Executive, say that she has always been like that.

In the early days of the protest movement the people on the streets frequently called for Lam to step down. But as time went on the cry was largely forgotten as people concluded that she was simply irrelevant and could even be replaced by someone worse – a tough call but not impossible.

So, why bother discussing the fast shrinking Lam here? The answer is that despite her substantial irrelevance she is still capable of harming Hong Kong’s interests.

A so-called leader who scraps her policy address at 48-hours’ notice in the hope of being in the proximity of President Xi during his visit to Shenzhen, is a grovelling embarrassment. Her explanation of why she did so is even worse, as she more or less revealed that she dared not outline policies for the SAR without getting the endorsement of her bosses in Beijing. Even her predecessors never went that far. What this says about the remnants of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy can now be written on a postage stamp.

Bridge from Hong Kong to Shenzhen Bay control point. Photo: GovHK.

Lam has been asked more than once whether she would be prepared to stand up for Hong Kong in circumstances where there could be a clash of interests with mainland China. On the one hand she denies the possibility of such a clash, and on the other she is unprepared to say unequivocally that she will fearlessly fight for the people she is supposed to represent.

Even under the harsh restraints of the system on the mainland, governors, mayors and provincial  Party officials stand up for their localities – some more than others. But in Hong Kong, where one country, two systems is supposed to be the order of the day, the CENO either will not or cannot bring herself to do the same thing.

She is primarily concerned over the good opinion of her bosses in the North. And the more she moans about how hard she works and how little she is understood, the more people realise that she is ceasing to be the Chief Executive in Name Only and morphing into the Chief Executive of Total Irrelevance.


HKFP does not necessarily share views expressed by opinion writers and advertisers. HKFP regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us in order to present a diversity of views.

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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. Vines’ latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published in 2021 by Hurst Publishers, London