Carrie Lam took office as Hong Kong’s leader on July 1, 2017, after winning 777 votes from a 1,200-member Election Committee.
In the five years since, the city has experienced great upheavals, including the protests and unrest of 2019, Beijing’s sweeping national security legislation and election overhaul, and the Covid-19 pandemic – the fifth and worst wave of which has disturbed the leadership race.
Having worked for more than 40 years in the Hong Kong government, including as a high-ranking official since 2007, what has this experienced civil servant brought to the table during times of difficulty? And how many of her election promises have stood the test of time?
‘A new style of governance’
Lam’s election manifesto was not short of progressive ideas.
In it, she pledged to “rebuild a harmonious society” and “restore confidence” in the government, stating that “government policy implementation must be more closely aligned with public opinions.”
To achieve such promises, Lam said her government “should canvass opinions from all sectors of society” during policy formulation, and invite qualified people who wished to serve Hongkongers to join statutory and advisory bodies “regardless of their political affiliation.”
Nevertheless, under her leadership, the city has seen most of its dissenting forces either disbanded or forced to shut down since Beijing implemented the national security law on June 30, 2020.
These include the Civil Human Rights Front, the largest coalition of pro-democracy groups and a frequent rally organiser; the city’s largest pro-democracy coalition of trade unions, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions; and independent media outlets such as Apple Daily, Stand News and Citizen News.
Forty-seven prominent pro-democracy figures, including scholars, former lawmakers and district councillors, have been charged with national security offences stemming from their organisation of or participation in a primary election for the 2020 Legislative Council poll, which was later postponed. Most of the 47 have been detained for over a year while they await trial.
When HKFP asked Lam in January whether the closures of Stand News and Citizen News had a “chilling effect” on press freedom in the city, Lam defended the national security legislation.
“When I took office, I had been as liberal as possible, in engaging people from different parts of the political spectrum, but what has happened?” Lam said. “Nobody could anticipate that actually Hong Kong was under that sort of very severe challenges, with a lot of people advocating independence, colluding with foreign forces and undermining the power of the state as well as the Hong Kong SAR government.”
Beijing also overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system during Lam’s term, slashing the number of directly elected seats in the city’s legislature, while introducing a vetting panel to screen candidates based on national security background checks.
In an interview with iCable News about the electoral changes last April, Lam said that Beijing’s actions were not her “personal problem.” She said that neither she nor the central and Hong Kong governments would see the necessity and urgency for Beijing to intervene if there were not people “advocating Hong Kong independence,” “proposing mutual destruction,” or causing “large chaotic situations,” such as those witnessed in the Legislative Council since October 2016.
The changes prompted international condemnation, as they made it near-impossible for pro-democracy candidates to stand. But Lam’s government said the overhaul would ensure the city’s prosperity and stability.
With opposition candidates behind bars, in exile or unable to run in the “patriots only” Legislative Council election on December 19, 2021, the poll saw the lowest voter turnout since Hong Kong’s handover, at 30.2 per cent. Pro-establishment figures swept 89 seats of the 90-seat legislature, with only one going to a non-pro-establishment candidate, Tik Chi-yuen.
Rule of law and legislations
The now-axed extradition bill – while not in Lam’s election manifesto – was introduced by her administration in April 2019.
Critics said the bill, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, could be used to silent dissidents while undermining the judicial freedom and independence of the city. Protests erupted in June 2019 across different parts of Hong Kong and an estimated 2 million Hongkongers joined the largest anti-extradition rally.
However, as the months wore on, protests escalated into sometimes violent clashes with police amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment.
The protests, which saw over 10,000 arrested, eventually died down as the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Beijing and Hong Kong authorities said the implementation of the national security law and the election overhaul were key to restoring Hong Kong “from chaos to order.” Soon after security legislation was implemented, Lam and several other officials – including then-chief secretary John Lee – were sanctioned by the US for “for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong.”
As a result, Lam became the first chief executive of Hong Kong on the US sanctions list.
In her manifesto, Lam hailed Hong Kong’s judicial independence as one of the city’s “core values,” and said the government “should fully support and accommodate” the judiciary’s requirements for resources.
When Beijing’s draft of the city’s national security law was revealed on June 20, 2020, the suggestion that the chief executive could “appoint a number of judges” to handle national security cases drew concern from pro-democracy legal groups and lawmakers that it would undermine judicial independence.
In response, Lam said that the chief executive could only appoint a list of designated judges and the judiciary was still responsible for allocating cases for the listed judges. Lam said the chief executive had long been responsible for appointing a certain group of judges to handle specific cases such as land and labour disputes and “no one had mentioned that it would affect judicial independence.”
At the opening of the 2022 legal year, Chief Justice Andrew Cheung also said there was “no question” of the impartiality of the city’s hand-picked national security judges.
Since the national security legislation was implemented, four overseas non-permanent judges have left their posts in the Court of Final Appeal, James Spigelman , Brenda Marjorie Hale, Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge. All cited concerns over the national security law.
Prevention of Bribery Ordinance
Lam pledged to extend the scope of the city’s Prevention of Bribery Ordinance – listed first among legislation proposals in her manifesto – to cover the chief executive and “resolve as soon as possible” related “constitutional and legal issues.”
However, Lam told lawmakers in July 2021 that she had to “default” on her promise as she said the chief executive “represented the whole of Hong Kong’s governmental system” and “to some extent it rides above the executive, legislation and judiciary, while amending the ordinance will challenge and weaken its constitutional status.”
She also said she believed that future leaders of Hong Kong should not seek to make the amendment either, as it “targets at the chief executive’s constitutional status.”
International financial centre
Maintaining the city’s status as a global financial hub has been one of Lam’s main tasks as the leader of Hong Kong.
Two weeks after the enactment of the national security law, the US revoked Hong Kong’s special status, meaning the city has since been treated the same as mainland China in terms of trade and immigration.
The city has also been excluded from a US think tank’s economic freedom index since 2021, which the Hong Kong government used to cite in promotional materials.
In July 2021, the US issued an advisory warning multinational businesses about the national security law in Hong Kong, saying foreign nationals had been arrested under the law and firms may be asked to surrender corporate and customer data to Chinese authorities, or subject themselves to electronic surveillance without warrants.
Nonetheless, Stephen Phillips, the director-general of investment promotion for Hong Kong, said on RTHK in March that the national security law has not discouraged foreign investment.
According to Phillips, the number of businesses with parent companies overseas or in mainland China reached a record high of more than 9,000 last year, while his department had aided 333 corporations to expand or set up in the city. Phillips also cited the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s figures for 2020, where Hong Kong stood at third place in terms of foreign direct investments.
Phillips instead pointed to Covid-19 as having a negative impact on the business environment in Hong Kong and around the globe.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Hong Kong has followed China’s dynamic zero-Covid policy – attempting to curb all outbreaks when they occur and adopting strict disease control measures at its borders.
When the Omicron-led fifth wave engulfed the city at the beginning of the year, Lam’s administration rolled out its most stringent set of Covid-19 rules, which banned direct fights from a number of “high-risk” countries and barred a list of designated businesses from operating. Nevertheless, the outbreak infected more than 1 million and killed over 8,000 people, most of them elderly and unvaccinated.
In the mean time, the strict Covid-19 travel restrictions and the lack of a roadmap to normalcy have prompted a number of businesses to consider leaving the city.
A survey conducted by the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong in January and February revealed that a quarter of Europeans companies would fully withdraw from the city in a year “given the current Covid-19 restrictions,” while another 24 per cent were planning to retreat partially.
On March 30, Lam said it was “unarguable” that the city is seeing a brain drain due to its stringent anti-epidemic measures as “some senior management of some corporates have left Hong Kong,” admitting that strict border controls would shake the confidence of foreign investors.
But Lam said she believed that foreign businesses would continue to view Hong Kong as “a place from which they can still make money,” as no other economy in the world has China’s support like Hong Kong does.
Hong Kong has topped the rest of the world in terms of unaffordable housing for the past 10 years, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability study.
In the latter half of 2019, Hong Kong’s lack of affordable housing was brought under the spotlight when Chinese state media named surging property prices and a lack of social mobility as “deep-rooted” reasons behind the protests and unrest.
In 2021, officials including the Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong and Luo Huining, the director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, also spoke about the city’s housing problems. They urged the Hong Kong government to bring an end to sub-divided flats, cage homes, and other substandard living conditions.
Throughout Lam’s time in office, she has introduced a number of policies aimed at dealing with the city’s long-standing housing problems, including a Starter Homes pilot scheme to offer discounted private residential properties to first-time buyers, increasing the supply of subsidised flats under the Home Ownership Scheme, and raising the mortgage loan cap from HK$4.8 million to HK$9.6 million.
In addition, Lam’s administration will finish building 96,500 public housing units by the end of her term, which is 30,000 more than the previous government-term, according to her latest policy address.
But despite the increase in supply, the wait for public housing has also increased. As of December 2021, figures from the Hong Kong Housing Authority show that general applicants must wait six years on average for public rental housing, the longest waiting time since 1999.
Lam said her administration has already earmarked around 350 hectares of land to construct about 330,000 units of public housing over the next 10 years, exceeding the target of 301,000 in the government’s Long Term Housing Strategy, but only one-third will be delivered in the first five years.
In other words, the government is planning to produce on average about 30,000 public housing units annually over the next decade, more than doubling its public housing production rate from 2011 to 2021, which averages at 14,000 units yearly.
However, the issue of affordability in Hong Kong’s private housing market has shown no signs of improvement under Lam.
A half-yearly report published by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority revealed that the housing price-to-income ratio has climbed from 16.6 in the second quarter of 2017 to 19.8 in the fourth quarter of 2021. The average price of a typical 50-square-metre flat is now nearly 20 times the annual median income of a household living in private housing.
The Centa-City Leading Index, which reflects the second-hand property prices in 100 major private housing estates, has also risen from 160.05 in July 2017 to 177.34 on April 1, 2022.
Long-term development projects
As chief executive, Lam has proposed two major development plans – Lantau Tomorrow Vision and the Northern Metropolis.
Lantau Tomorrow Vision involves the construction of artificial islands off Lantau to create a new business district at an estimated cost of HK$640 billion. The project would require massive land reclamation, and promises that 70 per cent of the residential buildings would be public housing.
When announcing the reclamation project in 2018, Lam said it could provide 260,000 to 400,000 residential units and accommodate 700,000 to 1,100,000 people. The first batch of residents could be living on the artificial islands by 2033 at the earliest.
The scheme has sparked heated debate, with critics concerned about the high cost of the project and its potential environmental impact, saying that there are easier and more cost-effective alternatives to solve the city’s land shortage with unused agricultural or industrial land.
Lantau Tomorrow Vision remains in the research stage. In December 2020, the Legislative Council passed a HK$550 million bill to kick start the development plan. A consultancy firm was contracted for HK$220 million in June 2021 to start researching the project’s engineering feasibility. The study is expected to be completed by December 2024.
With less than a year of her term remaining, Lam announced another long-term development bid in her last policy address – creating a Northern Metropolis along the city’s border with mainland, covering a total area of 300 square kilometres.
Designed to create more than 900,000 homes for some 2.5 million people and generate 650,000 jobs, the Development Bureau said it would take 20 years to “basically complete” the project.
The cost of the Northern Metropolis was “yet to be calculated,” Lam said during her policy address. In the latest budget address, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said he would earmark HK$100 billion to establish a dedicated fund for the Northern Metropolis.
When Lam declared that she would not run in the upcoming leadership race, she said the next administration would have a “relatively stable political environment” as the national security law and election overhaul were in already place, adding that she “can’t see why” her successor would scrap the Northern Metropolis development or fail to implement Lantau Tomorrow Vision.
‘Connecting with young people’
Lam shared her aspirations to “build our future together” by “connecting with young people” in her manifesto. She understood the young generation had “their own ideas and views on social issues,” her manifesto said, and greater opportunities should be given to them to participate in public affairs.
However, the relationship between the Hong Kong government and the city’s youth has reached rock bottom since the 2019 protests ignited by the since-axed extradition bill.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey conducted field surveys at 26 protests in 2019. People aged 34 or under made up the majority of their respondents, while those aged 20 to 29 were the most active in the demonstrations.
In total, more than 4,000 students – of whom 1,700 were below 18 – were arrested by the police in relation to the protests and unrest, according to figures provided by the Security Bureau last September.
At the end of 2020, the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care at CUHK surveyed 250 high school students – 87 per cent said they did not trust the Hong Kong government.
With the implementation of the national security law, Lam’s administration started to amp up “patriotic education” at Hong Kong schools. This included replacing Liberal Studies – which was criticised by pro-establishment figures as being a reason behind students’ participation in the protests – with Citizenship and Social Development.
Form 4 students, aged 15 to 16, became the first cohort to study the new subject last September, learning about how Hong Kong’s national security legislation has “restored order” to the society and “enhanced” the city’s protection over human rights.
Last February, the Education Bureau published the national security education curriculum framework for primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong. Schools are requested to submit an annual report showing how they incorporated national security education in different areas, including school administration and staff training.
During an education forum in July 2021, Lam said that the city had lacked systematic patriotic education since the handover, and the government’s work on implementing national education in schools had been “stigmatised by people and media with ulterior motives.”
“We have to work together and confidently roll out patriotic education in Hong Kong, promote the spirit of patriotism and in return rectify the values of young people.” Lam said.
Correction 10/4/2022: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of a Legislative Council bill related to Lantau Tomorrow Vision. We regret the error.
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