A look at Carrie Lam’s Legacy as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on April 4 that she would not be seeking a second term. Lam said, “In other words, I will complete my five-year chief executive term on June 30, and will officially end my 42-year career in government.”

The defining aspects of Lam’s legacy as Hong Kong’s first female Chief Executive will likely consist of her leadership through the city’s years of turmoil and subsequent political restructuring, rather than her other policy goals. So, temporarily brushing aside the Anti-Extradition Bill’s civil unrest, National Security Law, and Covid-19 pandemic, what has Carrie Lam’s administration done for Hong Kong?

Highlights of Carrie Lam’s Policy Goals

Throughout her five years as Chief Executive, Lam’s policies have always centred on five key areas:

  1. Housing & Land Supply

Hong Kong’s real estate ranks the most expensive in the world for almost a decade, the cost of housing and shortage of living space have always been consistent problems for the government. Aside from managing the ongoing shortage through the funding of Starter Homes and transitional housing, Lam has proposed two major solutions to the persistent problem: the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, and the Northern Metropolis.

Plan of Lantau Tomorrow Vision. (Source: https://www.lantau.gov.hk/filemanager/content/lantau-tomorrow-vision/leaflet_e1.pdf)

The Lantau Tomorrow Vision was proposed in 2018 and would see the construction of artificial islands between Lantau and Hong Kong island. The plan is a long-term project that aims to provide land for social and economic development whilst also conserving natural and cultural assets. If successful, Lantau would directly link the Greater Bay Area to Central via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge. Although it has been three years since its proposal, the project has yet to move past the planning and studies stage.

In Lam’s last policy address, she unveiled the Northern Metropolis plan which aimed to transform the Northern areas of Hong Kong, including those along the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, into an urban metropolis for housing and technology development. Whether or not these two projects will continue to develop will depend on Lam’s successors as both remain largely ideas.

2.  Diversified Economy

In terms of the Economy, Lam’s administration has aimed to promote the development of cultural and creative industries, environmental industries and, most notably, innovation and technology (I&T). In the last four years, Lam’s government has invested more than $130 billion to promote the I&T development, most of which are centred around Science Park and Cyberport, as well as the newly proposed “Loop”. The proposed Loop looks to integrate Hong Kong and Shenzhen initiatives to form the “Shenzhen-Hong Kong I&T Co-operation Zone” to pool resources and create an international I&T hub in the Greater Bay Area. 

3.  Improving People’s Livelihoods

Within the policy goal of “Improving People’s Livelihoods” falls healthcare, labour rights and social services. Lam’s government has made two lasting impacts on Hong Kong.

The first one is the legal extension of paternity leave from three to five days in 2019, as well as increasing maternity leave from 10 to 14 weeks in 2020. 

And the second one is the promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine within Hong Kong’s healthcare system. Since her first year in office, Lam has made it clear that the facilitation of Chinese medicine into the public healthcare system will be a goal of her administration. Beginning with the formation of a dedicated unit under the Food and Health Bureau to oversee Chinese medicine development in 2017, various measures have since been rolled out such as:

  • The construction of the Chinese Medicine Hospital and the Government Chinese Medicines Testing Institute;
  • The provision of Government-subsidized out-patient services and integrated Chinese-Western medicine in-patient services;
  • The establishment of the Chinese Medicine Development Fund.

4.  Liveable City

Hong Kongers enjoying the new Wanchai Waterfront Promenade (Photos: Kyle Tse)

For residents, achieving a “Liveable City” involves the development of infrastructure. Lam has overseen the renovation and expansion of Victoria Harbour’s waterfront. As of now, the harbourfront promenade spans a total of 23 kilometres between both Hong Kong island and Kowloon. The reporter notes that these promenades provide a public open space where Hong Kongers can do activities normally restricted in parks such as skateboarding, rollerblading or simply taking their pet out on a walk. In the 2021 policy address, Lam outlines plans on expanding the harbourfront promenade from 23 to 34 kilometres by 2028, for $6.5 billion.

Two other infrastructural changes to note are the opening of the controversial Express Rail Link in 2018, which connects Kowloon to the high-speed rail network of China, and the linking of the West Rail and Ma On Shan lines into the single Tuen Ma line.

5.  Nurturing Talents and Youth Development

Lam’s lasting legacy on the development of youth will likely be her changes to the local school curriculum. In 2017, Lam had already stated her intention to:

  • Make Chinese History an independent compulsory subject for the junior secondary level;
  • Replace Liberal Studies with the Citizenship and Social Development subject.

Students of the 2017-2021 cohort will be the first to undergo exams on the new subject which consists of three themes:

  • Hong Kong under “One Country, Two Systems”,
  • Our Country since Reform and Opening-up
  • Interconnectedness and Interdependence of the Contemporary World

The subject also suggests students participate in the Mainland study tour, as it is an integral part of the curriculum of Citizenship and Social Development.

Anti-Extradition Bill Unrest & the National Security Law

Carrie Lam’s legacy will no doubt carry the weight of the months of mass protests sparked by the Anti-Extradition Bill in 2019 and 2020. The lasting impact on Hong Kong society comes in the form of the National Security Law (NSL) which was passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in China on June 30, 2020.

For context, in February 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would allow the government to transfer fugitives from Hong Kong to Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China, for which there was no formal mechanism at the time. A mass demonstration on June 9, 2019, would lead Carrie Lam to temporarily suspend the bill before it was officially withdrawn on October 23. However, Lam would not cede to the protestors’ other key demands and thus the unrest and polarization of society continued until the implementation of the National Security Law suppressed the unrest.

The NSL that was passed, whilst a necessity under Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, established the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organizations as well as the verbal promotion of Hong Kong’s secession from China. In response, many Hong Kongers fled the city, whilst liberal media establishments such as Apple Daily chose to close down. Additionally, the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council all resigned in November of 2020. Thus, the National Security Law had effectively removed most opposition to the government and allowed for the city’s political restructuring, all of which Carrie Lam oversaw.

In the end, Apple Daily chose to close down. Additionally, the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council all resigned in November of 2020. Thus, the National Security Law had effectively removed most opposition to the government and allowed for the city’s political restructuring, all of which Carrie Lam oversaw.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Given that the Coronavirus pandemic is still an ongoing issue, it would be hard to judge exactly what Lam’s future legacy on the matter will be. In general, she has followed the Central Government’s strict zero-covid policy which taxed both Hong Kong citizens and businesses alike. Nevertheless, Hong Kong had largely evaded a widespread outbreak until the fifth wave in early 2022.

At its peak, the wave saw just under 80,000 cases a day with Hong Kong’s elderly being the most at-risk of death. Pushing the healthcare system to the brink of collapse, criticism has arisen over Lam’s lack of preparation for the fifth wave.

Moreover, it remains to be seen how Lam’s strict Covid policy will impact Hong Kong’s status as an international business hub as the long quarantine requirements continue to isolate its foreign business sector.

Election Reform

Ultimately, Lam’s most poignant legacy may be the political restructuring Hong Kong has undergone since the implementation of the National Security Law. This is most evident in the electoral reforms made at the behest of the National People’s Congress.

On March 11 2021, the National People’s Congress passed a decision to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system. This was promptly carried out by Lam with her administration implementing the Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Ordinance 2021 on May 31.

The makeup of the new Legislative Council. (Source: https://www.cmab.gov.hk/improvement/en/legco-ele/index.html)

The seventh Legislative Council elections saw an increase from 70 to 90 members. However, instead of being split evenly amongst geographical constituencies (ie. those elected through direct elections) and functional constituencies (ie. those elected from various interest groups), the new Legislative Council only leaves 20 seats to the geographical constituencies. 

Composition of the new Election Committee. (Source: https://www.cmab.gov.hk/improvement/en/legco-ele/index.html)

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive elections saw an increase from 1200 to 1500 electors. In past elections, Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories District Councilors made up 117 of these electors. These have largely been replaced by “Representatives of the members of Area committees, District Fight Crime Committees, and District Fire Safety Committees”.

The ending of Carrie Lam’s term coincides with the 25th year and mid-point of Hong Kong’s existence under “One Country, Two Systems,” and perhaps appropriately, her term has brought Hong Kong closer to the Mainland than ever before.

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