No successor in sight if HK leader Carrie Lam quits

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had apologised for causing "substantial controversies and disputes".
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had apologised for causing "substantial controversies and disputes".

HONG KONG • Embattled leader Carrie Lam is under mounting pressure to step aside. There is one problem: Nobody seems quite sure who should replace her.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out said that Mrs Lam's days were numbered, even after she "paused" a Bill that would allow extraditions to China for the first time and, a day later, apologised for causing "substantial controversies and disputes in society" - though it was accepted by few swarming downtown streets.

The protesters are aiming to knock out Mrs Lam in a show of people power that has gripped the world, embarrassing Beijing at a time when President Xi Jinping is engaged in an escalating economic fight with the Trump administration. Yet, even if she eventually steps down, a widening gap between the financial hub and the mainland will put her successor in a similarly difficult position.

"I can't see any viable candidates," said student Casper Ng, 22, when asked who should take over from Mrs Lam if she resigns. "Most importantly, this person must listen to public views, not just the central government."

Mrs Lam has failed to heal divisions in the former British colony two years after taking over from her unpopular former boss, Mr Leung Chun Ying, who was forced to forgo seeking a second term due to widespread discontent.

While Mrs Lam might have underestimated the opposition to her extradition Bill, her task was complicated by the requirement to serve two masters - Hong Kong and Beijing - without a public vote to provide a mandate.

"It is an impossible job," said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, author of China Tomorrow: Democracy Or Dictatorship?", who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University. "You are sandwiched between Beijing, which keeps giving orders, wants the Hong Kong government to toe the line on everything. Then you have the demands and expectations of Hong Kong society on the other hand."

While governing Hong Kong would be difficult for anyone, Mrs Lam's failure has been having a "tin ear", said Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China historian at the University of California, Irvine. The latest example, he said, was waiting for some 24 hours to apologise even after suspending the Bill. "It is here that Carrie Lam has been failing," he said.

The extradition saga raises new questions about whether Hong Kong is governable under the "one country, two systems" framework devised before the city's return to Chinese rule 22 years ago. And it puts new pressure on China to either compromise on activists' democratic demands or risk further unrest that could destroy its viability as one of the world's great financial centres.

Many protesters liken Mrs Lam to Mr Tung Chee Hwa, who was Hong Kong's first leader after the handover to China in 1997 and forced from office by mass protests. He had championed a controversial national security law, which - like Mrs Lam's extradition Bill - stoked fears of a Beijing-led crackdown on freedoms.

"Beijing is going to be very reluctant to have the same thing happen twice and give the impression that whenever people don't like a leader, they can come to the streets and kick her out of office," said Mr Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of City Of Protest: A Recent History Of Dissent In Hong Kong.

For Mrs Lam, a career civil servant, it has been a stunning fall. She was raised in a walk-up apartment in the Wan Chai district - where many protesters gathered on Sunday - and recalled doing homework on the bed because she lacked a desk. After graduating with a sociology degree at the University of Hong Kong, she joined the government.

She earned a reputation as a tough negotiator over the years. In 2007, she walked into an angry crowd to explain why Hong Kong was demolishing a historic pier. Then again in 2014 as the city's no. 2 official, when she met pro-democracy protesters to seek a deal to clear barricaded streets.

One of Mrs Lam's top advisers, Mr Bernard Chan, told Bloomberg Television yesterday that "there is no chance the Bill will be reintroduced" because the legislative term ends next year.

"I don't think anybody sane enough wants to take up this job," Mr Chan said when asked if he wanted to take over from Mrs Lam.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2019, with the headline No successor in sight if HK leader Carrie Lam quits. Subscribe