Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor talks to the Post about her recent policy address, political turbulence, social divisions and the way forward for the city as she sees it.
Lam warns of the need for tougher measures to contain an escalating coronavirus pandemic and public cooperation to succeed. And she shares a little about her personal life – but only a little.
I could only say that I have regained confidence. After having gone through such a traumatic period, when the whole society seemed to be saying that the government wasn’t doing the right thing, when people, or even friends and colleagues around you, were pressing me to do things that I did not feel [were] right.
For example, investigating the police. I really did not think [it was] right then, and I do not think it is right now. But under that sort of undue pressure, anyone, any human being will lose a bit of confidence. Let alone all those personal attacks and intimidation on myself, on my family and so on. So I could only tell that now, I’m back to my old self.
Well, if it is something that is necessary, and I still feel it is necessary, we would do it. But we would do it in a more polished and refined manner. We would spend a bit more time to explain and to engage, and we will strengthen our machinery to disseminate. And I would say that even up until now, that machinery in the government to disseminate has yet to be improved.
If you just look at the Covid-19 pandemic, every day we are improving. How we could reach the people of Hong Kong through the media that they are more used to, in a more effective and less bureaucratic and official way, so that they understand what we are doing.
It is very obvious that what has happened so far in this pandemic and also upon the advice of the experts both locally and overseas, that without an effective vaccine being discovered and then widely applied, it would be very difficult if not impossible to eradicate this Covid-19 and result in zero infection in any country or territory.
So, there’s nothing wrong for the government to say that we strive, we work very hard, we spare no effort in order to reduce infection to zero. And mind you, we did achieve that for certain periods of time during the last 11 months. I think consecutively we should have achieved zero local infection for maybe a fortnight during certain periods. So it’s not entirely not possible when it comes to local infection. Imported cases will be difficult unless we seal off the border and the boundary allowing nobody to come in. But I don’t think that’s realistic.
If you look at the latest wave, how could any government official promise [zero infection] if the people are not following the anti-epidemic rules? If people continue to have all [these] social gatherings, and crowds and take off their masks, whatever policies that should have the effect of achieving zero will not result in zero.
Having seen what we have seen in this latest wave, I do feel quite strongly that this is a time really to get tough. In fact, in any epidemic control measures have three buzzwords: one, to be rapid; two, to be precise, so you don’t get your measures all over the place; third is tough. So I think ... there is still room for improvement. In getting tougher with the people’s behaviour, with the business behaviour, I think there’s still room. Whether the law can be enhanced to make certain things compulsory.
Where people try to compare how Hong Kong has dealt with the pandemic situation, with perhaps China and Macau, one difference that stands out from the beginning till now is this polarisation, this mistrust of the government, this non-compliant behaviour. So we were a bit unlucky in a way that while this pandemic is a global event, but it hit Hong Kong immediately after a long period of social unrest, a long period of violence, a long period of mistrust, rightly or wrongly.
So we have to deal with that sort of situation, and so our strategy is we roll out measures one after another and try to adjust as we go on. Now, if you impose a very strong deterrent from day one, we could end up with some of the things that we are now seeing in central or western Europe. People went on the streets to protest, “you are taking away my freedoms, my rights”, and so on. So yes, that does have an effect on Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic work.
Hong Kong has changed for the good. Hong Kong now has a national security law that ensures safety and security that would not make Hong Kong a gaping hole for national security for the People’s Republic of China.
So the central government could have higher confidence in allowing Hong Kong to better integrate into the national development and hence our financial services, information technology and aviation can do much better. And hence there would be more opportunities for Hong Kong people, especially the younger generation, and they will have a better future.
Now judicial reform and judicial independence are two separate things. The judiciary is an institution in Hong Kong’s political structure under the Basic Law. So for any institution, if there’s any room for improvement, you could always reform. I am reforming the public sector. The Legislative Council is apparently now reforming their rules of procedure to prevent extensive filibustering.
If the judiciary considers it necessary to undertake some reform actions, why should I stop them from doing that? But I would respect the judiciary to come up with what they want to do, what they call the judicial reform. But under no circumstances would independence of the judiciary in terms of adjudicating cases be interfered with, because that is in the Basic Law, so nobody should contemplate to tell the judges how to adjudicate, not even the chief executive.
I don’t think it’s a matter of whether the chief executive is responsible. Hong Kong is a very free place. Historically Hong Kong has gone through difficult periods where we have seen a similar phenomenon of people emigrating. The stock and property markets have gone down, that is a proxy of confidence. But in this round, the property prices have not gone down at all. After all this social unrest, violence on the streets, closure of the airport and the epidemic, the residential property prices have perhaps moderated by 3 or 4 per cent. That is the proxy of confidence in this city.
Parents pulling their students out of schools – I met with the international school community from time to time to understand their situation. It’s because people are losing their jobs. Even if there are more people leaving Hong Kong for good, that is a personal choice. I hope that people will be able to objectively look at the situation and ask themselves, is that the Hong Kong they like to see, as of last year, or do they want to see a Hong Kong which is still stable, prosperous and able to move forward?
I do not feel guilty. What wrong have I done? I have introduced a piece of legislation for very good reasons. The only thing is maybe I and my team have not fully articulated and explained, and our PR machinery was very bad, vis-à-vis the other side and so people got confused, and they don’t know.
And then, it’s all because over the two decades, without much notice we did not realise there were such prevailing worries about this relationship between Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region] and the Central People’s Government. We might not have realised that over the years, over education or other things people tended to have their own view about the Central People’s Government and hence anything that has anything to do with the mainland of China will become a pretext for these actions.
This is one of the toughest jobs for any leader in the world by virtue because of “one country, two systems”. I can’t think of another place where you have this operation of one country, two systems. I can’t think of another place where the leader has dual accountability. He or she is accountable to the people of Hong Kong and to the Central People’s Government. Especially when the system in Hong Kong is so very different from the system on the mainland. So by nature, this is a very tough job.
So who would like to, or who is willing to do this tough job? One is commitment, whether you are committed to one country, two systems. The other is passion, whether you are passionate about this city, the future of this city. Finally is, of course, responsibility, whether you feel that you have a responsibility to make sure that one country, two systems works effectively. And Hong Kong will continue to be a great place to live.
I do nothing except work. I don’t even spend time talking to my husband these days. That is [the life of] a workaholic. Yes, because I devote every minute of my time to work. There is so much work to do in Hong Kong.
When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.