Carrie Lam came to office pledging to unite Hong Kong, but she will leave accused of being a divisive leader of a politically turbulent city.
Lam entered Hong Kong’s civil service in 1980, with her colleagues labelling her a “houdadak”, or “good fighter”, because of her strong will in a bureaucratic battle. She eventually rose through the ranks to become the first female governor of the key financial hub in 2017. She announced on Monday that she will not seek a second five-year term of office.
Lam’s tenure has been marked by controversies and scandals. In 2019, as hundreds of thousands of protesters flocked to the streets to demonstrate against a proposed, then withdrawn, extradition treaty with mainland China, Lam warned activists not to push Hong Kong into an “abyss”.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 a “sell-out” or Beijing’s “puppet” in a tearful TV interview.
The following year, Beijing imposed a hugely controversial national security law in the territory, which banned acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Since its implementation, a succession of political activists have either been jailed or have fled the city. News outlets ranging from Apple Daily to Stand News have been forced to close. According to Reporters Without Borders, close to two dozen journalists and press freedom campaigners have been arrested since June 2020.
More recently, the Lam administration’s insistence on “zero Covid”, in line with the mainland’s strategy, triggered warnings from international businesses groups of a potential exodus. Its 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 joining the civil service, she was sent to Cambridge University in England for a course in development studies. It was there she met mathematician Lam Siu-por, who later became her husband in 1984. They have two sons; both were educated in Britain.
Her ties to Britain, which is now accusing her of suppressing Hong Kong’s democracy movement, go back a long way, too. In 2004, she was the director-general of the Hong Kong economic and trade office in London, the city’s top representative to Britain.
Lam returned to Hong Kong in 2006. The following year, she renounced her British nationality – she is likely to have been a joint Chinese-British citizen – and became the city’s secretary for development. Her husband and two sons, according to media reports, also held British passports.
Lam’s rise to the top office came at a time when scepticism over Beijing’s influence in self-governing Hong Kong had begun to grow among some of its 7 million residents. She became the city’s No 2 in 2012, and in 2017 became leader, after securing 777 votes from a 1,194-member elections committee, which critics say is not representative of the will of Hong Kong’s voters.
On 1 July, 2017 – the day of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China – Lam was sworn in to office by Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. “Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority will be to heal the divide,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Lam’s work has been consistently praised by Beijing, and her supporters say she has a difficult job in the first place. Her critics both inside the city and overseas say she failed in uniting a divided Hong Kong and plunged one of Asia’s most vibrant financial hubs into uncharted waters.
“Her time in office has been characterised by numerous missteps that show just how removed she is from the population, 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 after time she has failed to stand up for 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 the shortcomings. “What is most regretful is I was unable to unite Hong Kong society better,” she confessed. “Gradually, I believe Hong Kong society will be more united, and our citizens should be more confident for its future.”
On Monday, she looked back at her five-year term saying: “I have faced unprecedented and enormous pressure.” She revealed that her decision was not a 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 forthcoming election provided Lam with an ideal opportunity to leave office. In the autumn of 2019, she told a group of businesspeople in a closed-door meeting that she was “very, very limited” in what her administration could do.
“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable. If I have a choice, the first thing [I would do] is to quit, having made a deep apology,” Lam said, her voice breaking with emotion. “So I make a plea to you for your forgiveness.”
But on Monday’s press conference, she insisted her decision was purely personal. “There’s only one consideration and that is family. I have told everyone before that family is my first priority in terms of my consideration,” she told reporters. “They think it’s time for me to go home.”