Dr Tim Summers
Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme (based in Hong Kong)
Tim Summers looks at what we know about Carrie Lam, the territory’s new leader, and where Hong Kong politics goes from here.
A pro-democracy protester holds up a yellow umbrella in front of Carrie Lam and her defeated opponents John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images.A pro-democracy protester holds a yellow umbrella in front of Carrie Lam and her defeated opponents John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing. Photo: Getty Images.

Carrie Lam, formerly number two in the Hong Kong government, was selected as the Special Administrative Region’s new chief executive on 26 March. What does the process and her selection say about Hong Kong’s political future?

  1. Elections for Hong Kong's top job are still within Beijing's control. Due to the failure of political reform proposals in 2015, Lam was elected on the basis of 777 votes from the 1,194 members of the Chief Executive Election Committee. This 'small-circle' process was essentially the same as that used since 1997 (the only change being the expansion of the committee from its initial size of 800). The design of the process favours Beijing, and indeed Lam was the favoured candidate of the central government and many of its supporters in Hong Kong.
     
  2. But the influence of the central government has limits. The second-ranked candidate, former finance minister John Tsang (365 votes), had not been encouraged to stand by Beijing, and a fourth candidate, Regina Ip (who did not obtain enough nominations to join the vote), reportedly also rejected suggestions from Beijing that she should not put herself forward. The Committee itself contained 325 individuals affiliated to or sympathetic to opposition parties and around 100 establishment figures who did not support Lam – most of whom voted for Tsang. Although Lam gained more votes than her predecessor, CY Leung, in 2012 (he obtained 689 votes after a controversial campaign when scandals undermined his main opponent), Beijing appears to have expended substantial political capital in securing her victory.
     
  3. Despite the closed process, public opinion matters. The campaign saw all the candidates actively seek not only the votes of committee members, but also wider popular support. This highlights the need for broader legitimacy, and the fact that public participation and media debate are central factors in Hong Kong’s open political culture. A number of opinion polls showed Lam to have notably lower levels of popular support than Tsang. This will constrain her ability to govern effectively and she will not be cut much slack by the Hong Kong population. There were protests at the election venue calling for ‘genuine universal suffrage’.
     
  4. The new chief executive is an economic interventionist. The two main candidates – Lam and Tsang – have different policy approaches. Tsang’s was a more liberal ‘laissez faire’ one. Lam is likely to continue the somewhat more interventionist approach of CY Leung, who intervened more than previous governments to try to stabilize property prices and make more land available for housing, as well as reinstating policies targeting poverty and agreeing measures to limit the social impact of rising numbers of visitors and money from mainland China.
     
  5. Political reform seems very far off. The third candidate, former judge Woo Kwok-hing, had the clearest position on the thorny issue of political reform. Many of the government’s critics see less prospect for progress here under Lam, who fronted the government’s consultation processes during the 2013–15 debates over political reform. Lam gave some conflicting signals during the campaign, and it remains to be seen whether she tries to restart the process. But given rising populism, the growing fragmentation and polarization of Hong Kong politics, and entrenched positions from both Beijing and the opposition, it will be even more difficult to obtain consensus on a way forward than when the last failed attempt at reform took place – a key indicator will be whether all political parties are willing to discuss compromises.
     
  6. July’s anniversary will be contentious. Following formal appointment by the central government, Lam’s term will begin on 1 July. This will also mark the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, which will coincide with a planned visit by President Xi Jinping. This will no doubt spark protests; for many, the 20th anniversary of the handover will therefore be less a time for celebration than an opportunity for many to highlight concerns about the future of the former British colony.

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