Hong Kong’s industrious, loyal—and hugely out of touch—leader is on her last legs

Facing the people.
Facing the people.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam came to power in 2017, it was hard to imagine that she could end up becoming more unpopular than her deeply distrusted predecessor Leung Chun-ying, who was called a “wolf” and seen as a closet communist.

Lam replaced Leung through a selection process determined by a group of 1,200 Hong Kong elites, where she emerged victorious with 777 votes. That number would come to haunt her, as the Cantonese word for the number seven is a homophone for an obscene version of “penis.” Many Hong Kongers now simply refer to her as “777,” as her determination to force through a hated extradition law despite opposition from all corners of Hong Kong—and the world—has managed to reinvigorate Hong Kong’s protest movement with a vengeance, undermine business confidence in the city, and potentially embarrass Beijing (paywall).

Organizers estimated up to 2 million people protested yesterday (June 16), for the second consecutive weekend. They were calling for the government not just suspend, but withdraw altogether the extradition law, and added Lam’s resignation to their list of demands. And as even Beijing loyalists who whisper nary a word of dissent are reportedly wavering in their support for Lam, it appears increasingly unlikely that she’ll live to reign a second term in 2022—following in the footsteps of the previous two chief executives.

Out of touch

Lam was not always unpopular. In fact, in her four-decade-long career as a civil servant, she was widely seen as a hardworking and no-nonsense bureaucrat who could get things done—the sort of leader that the city could have done with after years of political strife had sidelined important economic and social issues such as housing and poverty. For that, she was nicknamed the government’s “good fighter,” and was even enrolled (paywall) to defuse tensions and represent the government in a televised debate in 2014 with student leaders during the Occupy democracy protests that year. People also hoped that a new leader could help heal some of the deep social divisions and anger that marked Leung’s reign.

In the years since she assumed the top job in Hong Kong, however, many saw in Lam a leader who became only more and more out of touch. She once revealed that she didn’t know where to buy toilet paper, and defended a move to raise the threshold for receiving elderly welfare benefits from age 60 to 65 by arguing that she herself works over 10 hours a day and is older than 60. Whenever she was criticized, she only dug her heels in deeper, often invoking her devout Catholic beliefs to explain her actions.

It was also during Lam’s tenure that Beijing’s attacks on the city’s autonomy accelerated, through actions such as a ban on a political party and the disqualification of democratically elected lawmakers. The extradition law, which would have allowed suspects to be sent to be tried in mainland China, was seen by many as the ultimate assault on the values that keep Hong Kong distinct from the mainland—and Lam’s insistence on ramming it through earned her the moniker “Hong Kong traitor.”

Perhaps the last straw came during a televised interview last week, where a teary-eyed Lam spoke to the public for the first time following the protests on June 12 that resulted in violent clashes between police and demonstrators. In comments that would later be widely ridiculed, Lam compared accepting Hong Kong people’s demands for the extradition law to be withdrawn to a mother giving in to her spoiled children’s demands. Lam further fanned the flames by admitting that she wouldn’t let her own children come back to Hong Kong out of safety concerns—a comment that struck right at the heart of many local inhabitants’ anger that many privileged officials and tycoons are able to protect their families from Beijing’s power because they either have foreign passports or live overseas. Lam’s husband, a mathematician, and children all have British nationality.

Lam’s arrogance drew a group of thousands of mothers to gather at a last-minute protest last week in a central Hong Kong square, where one organizer asked: “Maybe she doesn’t understand the danger of the extradition law to her own children, because Carrie Lam’s own kids have foreign passports. But where would our kids go?”

Lam announced on Saturday (June 15) that she would suspend—not withdraw—hearings on the extradition law, and yesterday evening (June 16) apologized through a statement written in third person issued by the government. She said nothing of the protesters’ other demands, which include that she retract the characterization of the protests as a “riot,” which carries much heavier jail terms than those for lesser charges.

Her concessions aren’t likely to placate protesters, and people have continued to demonstrate around Lam’s office today (June 17). For now, Beijing has publicly said that it stands behind the Hong Kong government—but her presence is likely to be a continued rallying cry for protesters.

Even once Lam is gone, most people won’t hold high hopes that her successor will do a much better job of protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and fixing its myriad issues. The next chief executive will continue to be selected by a small circle of elites, while Hong Kong’s bizarrely constructed legislature is now heavily stacked in Beijing’s favor.

When the jockeying to be the chief executive begins, Hong Kongers will once again be reminded that it’s their lack of real power at the ballot box that forces them repeatedly to the streets, and that it was through sustained, large-scale protests that they managed to win a temporary reprieve from the extradition law. As David Webb, an activist investor and commentator, wrote. “Like muscle tissue, they must exercise those freedoms or lose them.”