Carrie Lam strikes conciliatory tone in first week in office, distancing herself from predecessor

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (top) is seen on a live feed screen as she speaks during her first question and answer session at the Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong on July 5, 2017.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam (top) is seen on a live feed screen as she speaks during her first question and answer session at the Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong on July 5, 2017.PHOTO: AFP
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaking during her first question and answer session at the Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong on July 5, 2017.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaking during her first question and answer session at the Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong on July 5, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Hong Kong's new leader distanced herself from her predecessor's fraught relationship with city lawmakers, vowing better communication as she sought to break years of political deadlock.

Five days after becoming the city's first female chief executive, Mrs Carrie Lam went before the Legislative Council on Wednesday (July 5) promising more frequent meetings with lawmakers.

Hong Kong's former No. 2 said her government would lobby the chamber's 70 democratically elected members directly to ensure their concerns were heard.

"I am a bit saddened seeing the internal conflicts and scuffles in the past few years," Mrs Lam said in a rare public critique of her ally and former boss, Mr Leung Chun Ying.

"Seeing the poor administrative-legislative relationship and the lack of trust between officials and lawmakers slow down the speed of policy implementation, I am concerned, but not disheartened," she said.

Mrs Lam's olive branch to lawmakers came after President Xi Jinping presided over her July 1 inauguration on the former British colony's 20th anniversary of Chinese rule.

The speech to the Legislative Council represented her most substantive attempt to differentiate herself from the unpopular Mr Leung, whose five-year term was marred by street protests and the emergence of an independence movement.

A one-time colonial civil servant who was preparing to retire before Mr Leung decided not to seek a second term, Mrs Lam, 60, has pledged to focus on healing political divides.

China's support helped her overcome a more popular challenger in March to win an election by a committee of 1,200 political and business elites dominated by Beijing loyalists.

"At a time when some citizens are feeling anxious and confused, my top priority is to unite the society," Mrs Lam said. "Therefore, connecting all parts of society extensively would be an important job for me and my executive team." 

To that end, she is seeking an early victory in the Legislature, where the pro-democracy opposition blocked many of Mr Leung's most ambitious proposals including a China-backed overhaul of the electoral process.

Mrs Lam proposed a HK$5 billion (S$885 million) education fund that appeared to enjoy across-the-board support.

The proposal includes converting contract teachers to full-time positions and paying annual subsidies of HK$30,000 for students who are funding their own undergraduate education.

It was not immediately clear if Mrs Lam's approach would sway an opposition suspicious of perceived efforts to restrict the "high-degree of autonomy" China promised before Hong Kong's return.

Mrs Lam deflected a question from Mr James To, of the Democratic Party, seeking a pledge to deliver a direct election for chief executive by 2022.

"Allowing all Hong Kong citizens to vote for their desired candidate benefits administration," Mrs Lam said, adding that she would "build favourable conditions".

"The first step is to communicate," she said.

In 2014, Mrs Lam spearheaded government efforts to push through the contentious, Beijing-backed political reform package that would have allowed a direct vote for the city’s next leader.

However, China’s demand that all candidates first be pre-screened by a largely pro-Beijing committee partly helped to trigger the 79-day “Occupy” pro-democracy civil disobedience movement later that year.

The political reform package was eventually vetoed in 2015 by opposition lawmakers who described it as “fake democracy”.  

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees wide-ranging autonomy and universal suffrage as an “ultimate aim”, but 
Mrs Lam played down the prospects of fresh political reforms being revived any time soon.  Beijing officials have also suggested Hong Kong won’t be given a second chance for democratic reforms.

“Political reform has always been very sensitive, very complicated and very difficult,” Mrs Lam told lawmakers. “If I ... restart political reform immediately, such that the society becomes embroiled in serious conflicts again and the economy and livelihood issues come to a standstill, then as the person with the utmost responsibility, I would have failed,” she said.  

Mrs Lam, in her first week in office, spent about an hour answering lawmakers’ questions in a specially arranged meeting, where the mood appeared less hostile compared with sessions involving her predecessor, the unpopular Mr Leung.  She stressed her desire to improve the executive’s relations with the legislature.

“I like coming to the Legislative Council. I don’t say this to flatter anyone. It’s because this is a place to discuss policies and to do work for the people,” Mrs Lam said.

“In the past few years we saw conflict and fights, with people pulling out their swords and bows. This made me a bit sad,” she said.  

Mrs Lam also said she would bring forward her maiden policy address to October from January, with land and housing, education and the economy her priorities.