Carrie Lam is a better politician than either Donald Trump or Theresa May. Admittedly, this is an historically low bar.
Donald Trump rose to power on a tide of abuse, extravagant promises and a tenuous understanding of the US constitution. Subsequently, he has demonstrated the attention span of a flea, enormous egotism, and been rewarded with dismal approval ratings plus multiple controversies.
Having become prime minister in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May called an election built around the slogan of ‘strong and stable’, but proved she was neither, thereby destroying a 20-point poll lead and her government’s majority. Her weakened government is now engaged in Brexit negotiations with no discernible strategy or objectives.
But credit where credit is due: Carrie Lam’s promise of ‘practical’ government reflects an intelligent recognition of her options both in respect of her team’s talents and their policy options. It also avoids the temptation of over-promising, the bane of most democracies.
But despite her long civil service career and her stint as chief secretary to C Y Leung’s chief executive, nobody can be quite sure what sort of chief executive she will be. We know she plans to spend an additional HKD5 billion on education but thereafter the rest is speculation.
During the election campaigns for the role of chief executive there were many suggestions that she would be just a continuation of C Y Leung. This appears both unfair and improbable: there can be few officials in public office with such a total lack of sensitivity to or interest in public sentiment than C Y Leung.
However, her campaign, apart from a well-rehearsed and delivered address at the launch event, was discouraging. A carefully posed picture of Carrie Lam, staring at a laptop screen, surrounded by photogenic children while declaring that, gosh, this Facebook thing was quite easy, was embarrassing. It depicted a politician wholly lacking the common touch. And this matters.
On 1 July she will inherit a host of widely recognised challenges: housing being high on the list, with developers now offering flats so small – and still vastly expensive – that most tai tais would regard them as providing inadequate storage space for their shoes. The wealth gap, job opportunities for the young, the power of entrenched interests and the evermore prominent intrusion of Beijing in the governance of Hong Kong, prompted by a minority pursuit of localism and a disorderly Legco, all make great demands on the incoming chief executive.
A highly competent bureaucrat will not be up to the job. A gifted politician is required.
After three disappointing chief executives, Hong Kong deserves a break. Success will demand sensitivity to public opinion while conveying there are, both within the Basic Law and political realities, limits on what can be achieved. It will necessitate successfully taking on vested interests. And it will require the skill to gain the trust of Beijing while minimising overt management of Hong Kong’s affairs. And, of course, the chief executive will have somehow to work with Legco.
Carrie Lam will have no chance of growing into her new role. Her moment of maximum advantage will be early in her term of office. Thereafter, challenges and problems will emerge – they always do – cynicism will flourish, opponents will sense weakness. She does nonetheless have the experience of working closely with her predecessor and understanding intimately how government works. This she needs to exploit ruthlessly.
She starts from a better place than Donald Trump and Theresa May, but she needs to strike fast. She could usefully spend a few moments each day studying the career of President Macron of France.