Will 2018 be the year Carrie Lam clearly emerges as the worst Chief Executive Hong Kong has had?
It would neatly fit a pattern in which the Chinese government curses the city with successively more-awful leaders, from CH Tung to Donald Tsang to CY Leung. On the other hand, it seems hard to imagine that Carrie – or anyone – could be a greater stereotypical disaster than CY.
The picture is muddied because the history of Chief Executives since 1997 involves a parallel trend: the expansion of direct rule by Beijing via the Liaison Office. Tung was left to bumble his own way, partly well-intentioned but accident-prone. Donald was less trusted but given the job on the understanding that as a bureaucrat he would be safely inert. CY was chosen for loyalty and obedience, and implemented with relish the local version of the Communist Party’s reassertion of control nationwide under Xi Jinping – but he also dabbled with some tokenistic welfarism on the side and backtracked on National Education.
Unlike her three predecessors, Carrie came into office under duress (for reasons we can only guess). And her hands are more tied: Beijing has scrapped the ‘high degree of autonomy’ whereby Hong Kong ran everything except defence and foreign affairs – the Liaison Office now gives orders on prosecutions, law enforcement, school curriculums, university appointments, refusal of entry to foreign troublemakers, and more to come. But even in policy areas where she is allowed some control, she is obviously utterly clueless, and is surrounded by fellow bureaucrats similarly devoid of ideas.
The result is passivity and ineptness.
In recently dismissing legal critics as ‘elitist’ (for thinking Common Law is superior to the Leninist version) she is simply prostrating herself to the Communist Party’s line. If she ever imagined serving as a go-between, she has abandoned it – she is resigned to serving as a pathetic and implausible apologist for Beijing. She will dumbly implement whatever infringements of civil liberties or other anti-Hong Kong malice the Liaison Office orders.
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, there is not even the pretense of a vision for the future. Instead, it’s all hand-wringing over ‘shortage of land’, privatized public-estate shopping malls, traffic congestion, and other failures of basic public administration.
Two worthwhile links from Hong Kong Free Press set the tone for the year ahead: the ongoing transformation and Mainlandization of the city as Carrie clutches her pearls, and the decline in Hong Kong’s international image, as she clutches them even more.