Carrie Lam came to power pledging to unite Hong Kong, but she will leave accused of being a leader who divides a politically turbulent city.
Lam entered the Hong Kong civil service in 1980, her colleagues calling her a “houdadak”, or “good fighter”, due to her strong will in a bureaucratic battle. She eventually rose through the ranks to become the first female governor of the major financial center in 2017. She announced on Monday that she would not seek a second five-year term.
Lam’s tenure was marked by controversy and scandal. In 2019, as hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets to demonstrate against a proposed, then withdrawn, extradition treaty with mainland China, Lam warned activists not to push Hong Kong into an “abyss”. She told her people that summer she was not Beijing’s “betrayal” or “puppet” in a tearful TV interview.
The following year, Beijing imposed a hugely controversial national security law on the territory, which outlawed acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Since its implementation, a succession of political activists have been imprisoned or fled the city. News outlets ranging from Apple Daily to Citizen News have been forced to close. According to Reporters Without Borders, nearly twenty journalists and press freedom activists have been arrested since June 2020.
More recently, the Lam administration’s insistence on “zero Covid”, in line with the continent’s strategy, has sparked warnings from international business groups of a potential exodus. Her handling of a deadly “fifth wave” of Omicron spread also led to the postponement of the election to find her replacement from March to May.
Lam, 64, describes herself as a devout Roman Catholic. She was born into a working-class family of seven in the former British colony in 1957. She once called herself a workaholic, sleeping only three or four hours a day.
In 1982, two years after entering the civil service, she was sent to the University of Cambridge in England to take a course in development studies. It was there that she met mathematician Lam Siu-por, who later became her husband in 1984. They have two sons; both were educated in Britain.
His ties to Britain, which now accuses him of suppressing Hong Kong’s democracy movement, also go back a long way. In 2004, she was chief executive of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London, the city’s highest representative in Britain.
Lam returned to Hong Kong in 2006. The following year she renounced her British nationality – it is likely that she was a Chinese-British co-citizen – and became the city’s development secretary. Her husband and two sons, according to media reports, also held British passports.
Lam’s rise to the top job came at a time when skepticism about Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong’s self-government had begun to grow among some of its 7 million people. She became the city’s No. 2 in 2012 and 2017, after winning 777 votes from a 1,194-member election committee, which critics say is not representative of the will of Hong Kong voters. .
On July 1, 2017, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, Lam was sworn in by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “Hong Kong, our home, suffers from quite a serious divide and has accumulated a lot of frustration. My priority will be to bridge the gap,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Lam’s work has been consistently praised by Beijing, despite mixed opinions on the territory. Critics both inside the city and abroad say it has failed to unite divided Hong Kong and has plunged one of Asia’s most vibrant financial centers into uncharted waters. .
“Her time in office was characterized by many missteps that show how distant she is from the people and how little she cares about their concerns,” said Louisa Lim, author of a forthcoming book, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong. Kong. “Time and time again, she has failed to uphold Hong Kong’s interests or defend the city in any way.”
Lam defended her government in an interview with the state-owned Global Times in December last year, but she also admitted shortcomings. “What is most regrettable is that I could not unite Hong Kong society better,” she confessed. “Gradually, I think Hong Kong society will be more united and our citizens should be more confident about its future.”
On Monday, she looked back on her five-year term, saying, “I faced unprecedented and enormous pressure.” She revealed that her decision came as no surprise to Beijing. In fact, she said, she expressed her intention to step down after her current term last year, and that Beijing was receptive.
Analysts say the upcoming elections have provided Lam with an ideal opportunity to leave office. In fall 2019, she told a group of business people in a closed-door meeting that she was “very, very limited” in what her administration could do.
“For a general manager to have caused this huge havoc in Hong Kong is unforgivable. If I have a choice, the first thing [I would do] is to stop, after offering a deep apology,” Lam said, his voice cracking with emotion. “So I beg your pardon.”
But at Monday’s press conference, she insisted her decision was purely personal. “There is only one consideration and that is family. I have already told everyone that family is my first priority in terms of consideration,” she told reporters. “They think it’s time for me to come home.”