Politics

With each new crisis in Hong Kong, pressure built on a Beijing loyalist


Under the watch of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, huge citywide protests deepened political divisions. A national security law silenced a once-vibrant civil society. And restrictive pandemic policies threatened Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s world city.

With each crisis, Lam tried to serve the will of Beijing, which controls the territory, and navigate competing pressures from residents and an international community leery of China’s growing authoritarian grip over Hong Kong.

On Monday, those pressures appeared to boil over as Lam announced that she would not seek a second five-year term, marking the end of one of the most tumultuous periods of governance in Hong Kong’s recent history.

Lam cited her family as the reason for her plans, saying that they were her priority and that “they think it is time for me to go back home.” But for some of her critics, it was Lam’s failure to guide the city through a devastating coronavirus outbreak that was her final undoing.

In recent weeks, Lam, 64, has faced rebuke from Hong Kong residents, pro-Beijing lawmakers and the city’s powerful business community for mishandling an omicron outbreak that has ravaged hospitals, nursing homes and public services. The surge laid bare the city’s lack of preparedness as it struggled to deal with more than 1 million cases and over 8,000 deaths in just the past couple of months alone.

But even before the pandemic, there was mounting criticism of Lam.

Demonstrators demanding the resignation of Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, pack a street in Hong Kong in 2019.  | LAM YIK FEI / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Demonstrators demanding the resignation of Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, pack a street in Hong Kong in 2019. | LAM YIK FEI / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Once known in the Hong Kong Civil Service, where she began her career 42 years ago, as a “good fighter” who never backed down, Lam has struggled as chief executive to navigate Hong Kong’s unique relationship with Beijing.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was promised partial autonomy when it was returned to China in 1997. But its democratic traditions have often been at odds with Beijing. Lam has mostly erred on the side of seeking approval from Chinese officials, who have been accused of redefining the “one country, two systems” framework that was agreed upon as part of the handover.

The system was meant to allow Hong Kong to maintain some freedoms distinct from the mainland.

“She has been one of the key actors who have buried ‘one country, two systems’ as we understood it in the first 25 years of the handover,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

To many in Hong Kong, it appears that Lam has done little to respond to the growing frustrations among residents during the pandemic, failing to change rigid coronavirus policies after a fast-moving outbreak tore through the city’s world-class hospital system and further isolated Hong Kong from other countries.

Two years into the pandemic, many of those policies have contributed to widespread unemployment and the shuttering of thousands of small businesses.

“It seems that the government is very removed from the lives of everyday people, and can’t seem to gauge how the policies they introduce would make our lives difficult,” Carmen Chan, a 45-year-old office worker in the Wan Chai commercial district, said Monday.

Chan said she had been disappointed by Lam’s administration and was somewhat relieved to hear that she would not seek another term.

Health care workers transfer a patient to a hospital in Hong Kong on March 2, during the fifth wave of the coronavirus.  | BILLY H.C. KWOK / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Health care workers transfer a patient to a hospital in Hong Kong on March 2, during the fifth wave of the coronavirus. | BILLY H.C. KWOK / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Lam became chief executive in July 2017 after pledging her loyalty to Beijing and promising to foster a stronger sense of Chinese identity among young Hong Kong residents. But deepening polarization of Hong Kong society two years later left her the target of huge street protests in 2019. Demonstrators demanded her resignation over an extradition bill that would allow the city to detain and transfer people to mainland China.

The bill was met with strong opposition and demonstrations that lasted months.

In the wake of the protests, Beijing imposed a sweeping new national security law over Hong Kong. It also drastically revamped election rules, giving pro-Beijing lawmakers even greater power to choose the city’s top leader and members of its legislature.

Foreign politicians were openly critical of the new law. The United States imposed sanctions on Lam and other senior officials, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state at the time, pledged that the United States would “treat Hong Kong as ‘one country, one system.’”

Lam referred to the protests, as well as the coronavirus and “nonstop interference of foreign forces,” as contributing to her decision to step down on Monday.

“I have faced unprecedented and enormous pressure,” she said.

As Lam rose through the Hong Kong Civil Service, first under British rule and later under Beijing, she became known for defending policy stances and refusing to back down from arguments. But over the past few months, as Hong Kong tried to hew to China’s “zero COVID” policy, she was criticized as sending mixed signals regarding how the city would manage the outbreak.

Hong Kong has some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world. Uncertainty over when those restrictions would end led to the largest exodus of residents since the beginning of the pandemic. While facing increased criticism from the city’s business sector and expatriate community, Lam doubled down on social distancing measures and an effort to make the city’s 7.4 million people test for the virus, something that mainland public health researchers had advised the city’s government to do.

Lam later backed away from mass testing. In late March, she said the city would lift a flight ban on nine countries and begin to relax restrictions, citing concerns that the financial sector was “losing patience” after officials indicated that the worst of the latest outbreak was most likely over.

News coverage of Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, on a television at a restaurant in Hong Kong on Wednesday.  | LAM YIK FEI / THE NEW YORK TIMES
News coverage of Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, on a television at a restaurant in Hong Kong on Wednesday. | LAM YIK FEI / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“The problem with the chief executive in Hong Kong is that you’ve got the left hand and the right hand,” said Allan Zeman, an adviser to Lam and a member of the election committee that will decide the city’s next chief executive. “You’ve got the international community on the one side, and China on the other hand, and you’re in the middle. Both have different aspirations.”

Hong Kong has reported nearly 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and 8,262 deaths, most of them tied to the recent outbreak, and many of them among Hong Kong’s older and unvaccinated population. The city’s fatality rate from the virus was at one point among the highest in the world, at 3 per 100,000 residents, in large part because so many older people were not vaccinated, seen as an example of Lam’s failure to prepare for the outbreak.

“Her authority and ability to govern have been severely eroded,” said Lau Siu-kai, a Hong Kong scholar who advises Beijing on policy, referring to her handling of the protests and pandemic. “Her departure will allow Beijing to form a new and more powerful team to attain a stronger and more effective government.”

Addressing speculation on Monday that Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, would be a favorite to replace her, Lam said that she had yet to receive a resignation from any government officials, a precursor to making a bid for the job.

She also said that she would focus on pandemic-related work until the end of her term on June 30. On Saturday, government officials issued a statement exempting candidates for chief executive from some social distancing rules while campaigning.

Hong Kong’s chief executive is determined every five years in a vote closely managed by Beijing and determined by an election committee made up of nearly 1,500 officials who back the Communist Party. The election was to take place on March 27, but was postponed until May 8 amid Hong Kong’s omicron surge.

With Lam’s announcement on Monday, questions about her desire for a second term were put to rest. But little else was certain beyond that. “Plans keep changing. Everything is unstable. I don’t know who will be next. I hope it will get better,” said Chan. “But I don’t really expect it to.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2022 The New York Times Company

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