Beholden to Beijing


Beholden to Beijing

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam once said her role meant she must serve two masters — the government in Beijing and the people of her city. After this year’s crackdown on democracy, her opponents say it’s now clear where her loyalty lies.

Filed: December 28, 2020, 12 p.m. GMT

At her swearing in as Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, Carrie Lam pledged to unite a city that was growing increasingly resentful of Chinese rule.

She had emerged quietly from the ranks of Hong Kong’s British-founded civil service to lead her city. She was immersed in the rule of law and civil rights. Many of the people of China’s freest city wanted to believe in her.

Yet in 2019, the streets erupted in violence when Lam attempted to drive through legislation allowing extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China, where they could face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. That effort ultimately failed, and Lam’s authority appeared to have been destroyed. But in 2020, Lam stood firm with Beijing as it imposed a far more drastic change – a national security law that gave China more power than ever to shape life in Hong Kong.

The opposition movement Lam battled has been largely extinguished. Hundreds of pro-democracy activists have fled into exile. More than 10,000 protesters have been arrested. Democratic lawmakers have been dismissed from the legislature and some of the city’s most high-profile activists have been detained or jailed.

Today, Lam is widely condemned by foreign governments, and has been sanctioned by the United States for her part in curtailing Hong Kong’s political freedoms. She says she can’t even open a bank account, telling a recent interviewer she has to store piles of cash in her home.

Lam and the Hong Kong government didn’t respond to questions about Lam’s leadership. Lam’s defenders have said previously that she has tackled a delicate and challenging situation well, restoring stability to the streets of Hong Kong. In a statement, the government said, “It is the legitimate right and duty of every state to safeguard its national security.” The rule of law, it said, “is a core value and the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success.”

Lam remains defiant. Some in Hong Kong believe she has made a comeback: Having toughed out the controversies over the extradition and security laws, they say, she may have retained enough trust in China that she will get to serve a second term as the city’s chief in 2022. 

This is the story of how Lam evolved from social activist to determined leader of a city that is losing much of the autonomy it was promised under Chinese rule.

“She was always honest, abided strongly to her principles”Lee Wing-wun, a nun who taught Lam at the St Francis’ Canossian School

Hong Kong government/via REUTERS

Lam was born in British-ruled Hong Kong in 1957, the daughter of a Shanghai immigrant and a Hong Kong mother with no formal education. She was the fourth of five children. The family lived in a small apartment in Wan Chai, a commercial district. Lam’s bunk bed doubled as a desk; she used to stand on the lower tier and rest her schoolbooks on top. Lee Wing-wun, a nun who taught Lam at the Catholic St Francis’ Canossian School, described a direct, honest and reliable student. “Her tone was always gentle,” said Lee in a biography on the government website.

Lam, a devout Catholic, studied at the University of Hong Kong, planning to become a social worker. Lee Wing-tat was a fellow student who would later become a lawmaker in Hong Kong’s parliament. He recalled Lam as an activist, intensely interested in helping the underprivileged.

In 1979, as China was opening up, Hong Kong students were invited to send a delegation to Beijing. She was among those who travelled. A highlight of the visit, according to former classmate Lee, was a banquet where a leading liberal journalist was a guest. “At that time, Carrie was not so conservative. She was a democrat. Just like me,” said Lee.


In 1980, Lam joined the colonial government of Hong Kong as an administrative officer, part of an elite cadre of officials trained in a wide range of roles and earmarked for promotion. She fulfilled her university ambition in 2000 when she became head of the Social Welfare Department, working with the city’s poorest. This connection with the struggles of ordinary people was at the core of her early political appeal.

“My three years as the Director of Social Welfare allowed me to venture deep into the lives of the man in the street, and I understand the needs of the underprivileged,” Lam said nearly two decades later, when she was campaigning to become the city’s leader.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, from 1992 to 1997, told Reuters he found Lam to be “a perfectly competent administrator.”

“Hong Kong’s return to the motherland is a shining page in the annals of the Chinese nation”Jiang Zemin, Chinese president 1993-2003

REUTERS/Kimimasa Mayama

At a rain-soaked farewell ceremony on July 1, 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule under an agreement to guarantee the city wide-ranging freedoms, including freedom of speech and assembly. As Chinese and British leaders joined 4,000 guests at an elaborate ceremony, an advance guard of about 500 mainland Chinese troops crossed the land border into Hong Kong. Forces from communist China were officially stationed on Hong Kong soil for the first time.

“These problems are not of Carrie’s making. She inherited them from her predecessors”Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The early years after the handover were mostly calm. But there were signals in the city of dissatisfaction with Beijing’s rule, such as a peaceful half-million strong protest in 2003 over proposed changes to national security legislation.

That unease escalated dramatically in 2014. Students took to the streets to call for democratic reform. Umbrellas, which were used by the protesters to protect themselves from tear gas, quickly became a symbol of their cause.

By now Lam had risen to the second-highest office in the territory, chief secretary. She showed an early tough streak in her dealings with the protesters. She cancelled a meeting with pro-democracy leaders after they called for an escalation of action if the government didn’t make concessions. That threat, she said, “has shaken the trust of the basis of our talks and it will be impossible to have a constructive dialogue.”

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

The Umbrella Movement failed to win ground from Beijing.

Some activists now believe that failure helped breed resentment that exploded in anti-government protests in 2019.

Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip, a supporter of Beijing, takes a different view. She told Reuters that years of social disparity in the city and sky-high property prices had helped fuel the unrest.

“Gradually, everything started moving from pink to red throughout 2018”Kurt Tong, U.S. consul general of Hong Kong, 2016-2019


Lam strode onto the global stage in 2017 when a 1,200-person committee, stacked with Beijing loyalists, selected her to become Hong Kong’s chief executive, the city’s leader. In a televised debate before her victory, Lam promised: “If the majority of Hong Kong people (thinks) I should no longer be Chief Executive, I will resign.”

In time, polls would show that a majority had lost confidence in her during the 2019 protests – but Lam, with Beijing’s backing, would hang on.

At Lam’s swearing in as chief executive, Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a stern warning that any threat to China’s security or challenge to the power of the central government “crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

A beaming Lam donned a hard hat and walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which links Hong Kong to mainland China, a symbol of integration.


In an interview with local media in December 2017, Lam insisted she would not blindly obey the orders of Communist Party leaders in Beijing. “Being accountable, does not mean you have to do everything you’re told,” she said.

In the months that followed, though, she repeatedly stressed the importance of binding Hong Kong closer to mainland China, even as many in the city were pushing back against Beijing’s growing influence.

Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission disqualified candidates critical of Beijing from standing for election to Hong Kong’s legislative council. A Financial Times journalist was denied a new visa after he hosted an event with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party.

While these moves drew international criticism, Xi praised Lam for her courage in taking on “difficult challenges.”

“The political room for the chief executive who ... has to serve two masters …  is very, very, very limited.”Carrie Lam, August 2019

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Despite mounting opposition locally and internationally, Lam tried in early 2019 to push through the law that would allow extraditions to mainland China. On June 9, an estimated one million people took to the streets to protest, followed by two million on June 16 as Lam refused to back down.

The standoff presented Beijing with its biggest popular challenge since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. It was the start of months of sometimes violent unrest, including an invasion of parliament by protesters. At times, parts of the glistening financial hub were brought to a standstill. Hong Kong was thrust into the international media spotlight, and business leaders were worried.

The impetus for the extradition bill, Reuters reported last December, originally came from Beijing, through a powerful Communist Party anti-corruption body. Lam, who insists the bill was her own doing, delayed it indefinitely in June. But the demonstrations continued as activists called for its full withdrawal.

“I think the biggest challenge for her was … this incredible tight-rope walk between being answerable to Beijing and being answerable to the Hong Kong people,” said Kurt Tong, former U.S. consul general of Hong Kong.


On June 18, Lam said she had heard the people “loud and clear.” Yet she still declined to abandon the bill.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said it was clear where Lam’s loyalties lay. “She plainly looked first to what she was told in Beijing, not her responsibilities for ensuring the rule of law and separation of powers and the autonomy of Hong Kong,” Patten said. Lam’s defenders have said that Lam is dedicated to the people of Hong Kong.

REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The scale and violence of the protests took a toll on Lam and her officials, said people who know her. Much of the protesters’ anger was directed at her personally. For many, she had become a despised figure in her own city.

“It’s well known she was quite shaken. Not only she, the entire ministerial team,” said Ip, the lawmaker who is supportive of Beijing. “They lacked experience of crisis management … and they had major communication problems with the public, with the international community, with the media. There were major gaps.”

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

In July, on the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, hundreds of demonstrators ransacked and smashed the chambers of the city’s parliament, daubing walls with graffiti proclaiming “anti-extradition” and calling for Lam to step down. In August, about 1,000 mostly black-clad protesters clashed with police at the international airport, leading to an unprecedented shutdown in the aviation hub.

“Take a minute to look at our city, our home,” Lam said, her voice cracking, at a news conference in a newly fortified government headquarters complex. “Can we bear to push it into the abyss and see it smashed to pieces?”

An uproar ensued in early September 2019, when Reuters reported that she’d been caught on audio the prior month opening up to a group of foreign businesspeople. She had caused “unforgivable” havoc, she told the group, and would quit if she could, “having made a deep apology.”

On Sept. 4, 2019, she withdrew the extradition bill.

“She does what she’s told by Beijing ... She answers the telephone. That’s the sad reality of life in Hong Kong now.”Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Protests in Hong Kong fizzled in early 2020, partly because of restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Behind the scenes, Beijing was hammering out a national security law for the city, which it said was aimed at restoring stability.

Lam was at pains to reassure investors and the broader public there was no reason to worry. She conceded, however, she didn’t know what the law entailed or how it would be executed. Beijing hadn’t yet revealed the all-important text of the bill.

When the law was published at the end of June, its reach stunned the city. The crimes of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and colluding with foreign countries carry penalties of up to life in prison. Lam said the measures would only target a small minority of “trouble-makers” who pose a threat to national security. 

Blank sheets of paper replaced printed slogans as a symbol of resistance to the law, which was condemned internationally.

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Thousands of protesters have been arrested, including leading activists Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow, for their part in the 2019 unrest.

Western and Asian envoys in Hong Kong say they have found Lam increasingly “reclusive.” Long-time observers say she has become almost unrecognizable since she came to power in 2017. Her language in media briefings and in conversation with Western diplomats is increasingly formal, similar to that of Beijing.

A former senior government official and colleague said Lam had become distant. She added, “I don’t think anybody in their wildest dreams expected her to turn out like this.”

Former classmate Lee said he believed Lam “didn’t anticipate that the Chinese Communist Party is so cruel or so totalitarian.”

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

A deep anxiety now envelops the city. Media mogul Jimmy Lai is among those who have been charged under the national security law. Lai was released on bail on Dec. 23.

While the streets of Hong Kong are quiet on the surface, political and social divisions run deep.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, published on Nov. 30, Lam was defiant. She said she has no regrets about what she has done to restore order.

One Beijing official told Reuters over the summer that the Chinese leadership sees few alternatives to Lam, for now, as chief executive. Diplomats who have met her in recent weeks believe the worst is probably over for Lam. “If I was a betting man, I’d say there’s a 70% chance she’ll run again as leader,” said a senior Western diplomat.

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Additional reporting from Katherine Cheng

Beholden to Beijing

By Anne Marie Roantree

Art direction: Troy Dunkley

Edited by Janet McBride