Carrie Lam Becomes Hong Kong’s Chief Executive; But Was The Election Democratic?

Following a decision by Hong Kong’s Election Committee, career civil servant Carrie Lam has been chosen to serve as Chief Executive for the Chinese Special Administrative Region. Lam has been praised for her legislative competence, but many liberal reformers criticize her as being too closely tied to Beijing and having gotten elected through an undemocratic system.

Lam was chosen to replace her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, or CY Leung, under whom she formerly served as Deputy. The first women elected to this high office, Lam was widely predicted to be the Election Committee’s choice even though polling indicated she was not the popular choice of the Hong Kong people at large. Amidst calls for more democracy in the election process, particularly focused on the function of the Election Committee itself, Lam has emphasized the importance of healing divisions between the government and the pro-democracy progressives who fear increased influence in Hong Kong by China.

Though described by BBC as “a strong administrator and [a] pragmatic lawmaker”, many view Lam as out of touch with normal people in addition to being insufficiently supportive of democratic reform. The 1,200-member Election Committee that chose her is only partially made up of democratically-elected officials; the rest includes representatives from the private and special interests sectors. The body has been further criticized for disproportionately representing Beijing-friendly points of view. The perception of Lam as being in the pocket of the Chinese government has also been exacerbated by Beijing reportedly lobbying in her favour during the campaign season.

In addition to calling for a reduction in conflict between those who support the current system and those who oppose it, Lam’s campaign advocated for a better incorporation of young people into the political process. As she explained, the Hong Kong youth are “often at the forefront of society, pulling and pushing us as a whole to make progress.” Although these young people were a major part of protests decrying the lack of democracy under the Election Committee-run system back in 2014, Lam portrayed them more recently as primarily “concerned about the lack of upward mobility and the cost of housing”. Though she also name-checked the importance of core values like transparency, inclusivity, rule of law, individual freedoms, and human rights, her hesitancy in embracing democratic reform at large suggests Hong Kong still has a ways to go before it’s government embraces true citizen-led elections. Argued Lam, “the administration must consider whether the criteria and atmosphere [for such reform] are present… Otherwise, we will draw Hong Kong into another series of divisions” like those expressed during the 2014 protests, which would not be “favourable for the city’s development.”

Hong Kong operates autonomously from the main Chinese government in Beijing but is still technically a part of China under a so-called “one country, two systems” set-up that has existed since 1997 (when the territory was relinquished by Britain). Former Chief Executive Leung was considered too closely aligned with Beijing, and pro-democracy activists even accused him of prioritizing the interests of China over those of his own people. In addition to dissent against this power imbalance, progressives in the region criticize how the non-representative Election Committee chooses the leadership rather than the people themselves doing so. These two factors were the main motivators of 2014’s so-called “Umbrella Protests”, during which Lam herself (at that time Leung’s Deputy) defended the government’s lack of full democracy. Echoes of those protests are being seen now in the wake of Lam’s own election, with activists calling the process illegitimate and protesting outside the election venue.

Lam’s main opponent during the election was former finance chief John Tsang, who was favoured by the general public according to polls. A third candidate, former judge Woo Kwok-hing, was even more liberal but had less public support than Tsang. Yet as the final vote tally — Lam 777, Tsang 365, Woo 21 — revealed, it is ultimately not the mass populace that holds real power in Hong Kong but rather the Beijing-friendly leadership.

Brian Contreras