Hong Kong's Carrie Lam Is 'The Fighter' — But for Whom?

Hong Kong's Carrie Lam Is 'The Fighter' — But for Whom?

By Carly Stern

A demonstrator (center) holds a poster showing Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, against a proposed extradition law before the start of a vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.


The government leader is facing heated protests, indicative of growing concern about Chinese control over the city.

By Carly Stern

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Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s political career is marked by protest. Weeks after being appointed Secretary for Development in July 2007, Lam found herself confronting hunger-striking protesters determined to preserve Hong Kong’s historic Queen’s Pier, soon to be replaced by a highway. The little-known civil appointee was able to push the establishment’s argument forward anyway — that the project was already too far in the process to stop. She was a calming presence but a no-nonsense one. The pier was demolished, and Lam came away with the nickname “the fighter.”

Now, as head of Hong Kong’s government, she faces another career-defining demonstration — one protesters are calling the largest in more than two decades. But the core question hovering over the debate is whether she’s a fighter for Hong Kong’s people, or for the interests of Beijing.

This week’s mass protests were sparked by a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong officials to make case-by-case decisions about detaining and transferring fugitives who committed crimes in places where Hong Kong doesn’t have extradition agreements. It comes after a Hong Kong man was accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and couldn’t be extradited because there was no existing treaty. But while officials argue it will prevent the city from becoming a safe haven for criminals, protesters worry the law could be weaponized to arbitrarily imprison perceived enemies of Beijing, including dissidents and activists, who live in Hong Kong.

That fear strikes to the core of the claim that Lam is beholden to the Chinese government, one she denies. “We were doing it, and we are still doing it, out of our clear conscience and our commitment to Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters.

The early protests Lam faced more than a decade ago centered on the preservation of Hong Kong’s cultural legacy. Similar questions simmer today as skeptics worry about the erosion of the city as an oasis for political freedom — with the unrest coming almost exactly 30 years after China’s brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. This move is another step toward cementing mainland China’s control over Hong Kong, says Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who specializes in Chinese politics. “The leadership [since Tiananmen Square] are convinced that they are surrounded by enemies at home and abroad who want to undermine the Communist party-state regime,” Nathan says. This makes Hong Kong — where dissidents have a base and those hostile to the regime publish embarrassing information — a prime target.

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997, when China regained sovereignty. Principal to this baton transfer was Basic Law, or a mini-constitution that granted Hong Kong specific rights like freedom of speech and assembly. Beijing retained control over travel visas, foreign affairs and defense. Some say this unique legal structure means China must pursue a gradual and piecemeal approach to expanding control. As a result, moves like this “become a lightning rod to mobilize opposition,” says Michael C. Davis, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. 

However, this extradition bill wouldn’t be a first: The Hong Kong government already has extradition agreements with 20 countries. Lam’s government, for its part, has responded to concerns with amendments that exempt those facing the death penalty and make the bill applicable only to people who could face at least seven years’ imprisonment.

She got elected by a mainland-dominated process because she was … willing to do the bidding of Beijing.

Andrew Nathan, Columbia University professor

Protesters have threatened to strike this week, but Lam has shown no signs of backing down. The political veteran, now 62, has become acclimated to weathering pushback over her decades in government. After graduating from the University of Hong Kong, where she majored in sociology and was a student activist, she entered civil service in 1980 and worked across a slew of departments, later studying at Cambridge University. Lam’s 2017 victory as the Beijing-supported candidate made her the first female to become chief executive in Hong Kong’s history. Although she espoused pledges to heal deep social divides on her rise, she’s since faced controversy over issues like the imprisonment of activists and the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates for office.

To be sure, some see her resolute style as a political asset. Others say her moves come across as tone-deaf. Both Nathan and Davis argue that Lam is not a victim to the powers that be in Beijing, but rather a willing accomplice. “She got elected by a mainland-dominated process because she was friendly to mainland control over Hong Kong and willing to do the bidding of Beijing,” Nathan says. This dynamic is exemplified as Beijing calls the shots on this extradition law, Davis says, adding that Lam’s complicity hasn’t boosted popularity among the people of Hong Kong. Protesters — who estimate their own turnout as over 1 million, while police peg it closer to 240,000 people — have called for Lam to step down. 

Though it might be too late to salvage widespread favorability, Lam’s reelectability ultimately rests on Beijing. The calm she’s known for has been ruptured. Her ability to restore it is her biggest test yet.