Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has held her first public consultation meeting for almost two years, with the hundred-plus audience largely selected by the government and just one strongly critical question.

The event on Sunday night was billed as a chance for Lam to canvass opinion in advance of her last policy address before her current term ends. She has not said whether she will stand for a second term next March.

carrie lam at 2021 policy address consultation
Carrie Lam at the 2021 Policy Address Consultation hosted by RTHK. Photo: GovHK.

Organised and hosted by public broadcaster RTHK, the open forum brought 53 people to the Xiqu Centre in West Kowloon in person and another 53 who connected via video link. Ninety of the 106 were “individuals from 18 districts” invited to attend the event by the Home Affairs Department, Ming Pao newspaper reported. Another 16 were randomly sampled by Lingnan University’s Public Governance Programme based on the city’s demographics.

About half of the 28 individuals chosen to speak said they held positions in pro-establishment groups. They included multiple members of Youth Programme Committees — which are district groups supervised by the Home Affairs Department — as well as members of pro-Beijing district Women’s Associations, rural committees, and the pro-government political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

Dr. Li Pang-kwong, a professor at Lingnan University said the research institution had reached out to Hongkongers aged over 18 by telephone and through random sampling in mid- August. But he told Ming Pao it had been difficult finding people willing to attend.

The faculty submitted a list of 25 individuals to RTHK, Li said, adding it was unclear why only 16 had taken part.

One critical voice

Only one of the individuals given an opportunity to speak voiced a directly critical opinion. Connecting through video link, a Mr Cheng said he opposed the huge Lantau Tomorrow land reclamation plan, as “animals are unable to oppose it.” He also urged the chief executive to pursue policies that guarantee freedom of speech.

Youth Programme Committees  2021 policy address consultation
Mr Cheng. Photo: GovHK screenshot.

“Hongkongers living under the SAR government cannot escape from its governance or to discuss politics. [For example] when an old man said epidemic measures aren’t satisfactory, another would tell him: ‘Don’t run your mouth, or you’ll be arrested,'” Cheng said. “Under this situation, Mrs Lam, I’d like to ask if there will be policies that can protect us from infringing on the law when we talk about politics.”

He also asked if Lam would propose legislation that “targets” officials who fail to achieve their policy promises. Lam did not respond to his comments.

Critics say the national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020, which has led to more than 100 arrests, has severely constrained freedom of speech – a charge denied by the government.

Most other speakers urged Lam to increase the supply of land for housing to ease difficulties in home ownership, while a few asked whether the government plans to hand out more spending coupons designed to boost the economy. Lam said the cash handouts and coupons involve significant funding and any future programme would depend on the state of the city’s economy and unemployment.

But these were looking more optimistic than in the past year, she said.

CE attends RTHK's programme 2021 Policy Address Public Consultation
Carrie Lam at the 2021 Policy Address Consultation hosted by RTHK. Photo: GovHK.

In response to questions on housing, Lam said the government has earmarked 300 hectares of land to to ensure housing supply in the next 10 years, and would look at speeding up construction.

Two participants urged the government to improve policies so ethnic minorities can better assimilate in the community. Lam said Chinese-language education currently provided to ethnic minority children and starting from kindergarten has had a considerable effect. Some of the city’s disciplined services had lowered their Chinese-language writing requirements in order to diversify their workforce.

In a response to HKFP, a spokesperson for the Policy Innovation and Co‑ordination Office declined to comment on how the 90 individuals were selected: “The randomly sampled citizens were selected according to the demographic characteristics of Hong Kong, including age and sex ratios. We have no information on the reason(s) why individual invitees did not show up.”

Lam’s last town hall meeting was in September 2019, at the height of the pro-democracy protests that year, where she faced a far more critical reception.

Update 19:18: This story has been updated with a statement from a government spokesperson.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.