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Sunday 28 May 2017 | 14:53 | SYDNEY
Sunday 28 May 2017 | 14:53 | SYDNEY

Lam’s election a jolt back to reality for Hong Kong

A protester raises a yellow umbrella as Chief Executive-designate Carrie Lam stands on stage with fellow candidates John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing, March 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg)

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4 April 2017 16:49

Ever since the popular John Tsang lost the Chief Executive election to the Beijing-anointed Carrie Lam on 26 March, Hongkongers are finding ways to accept a reality they wanted to avoid: a polarised Hong Kong under Beijing's grip for the foreseeable future.

Despite being a pro-establishment candidate, Tsang (a former financial secretary of Hong Kong) articulated a compelling vision for Hong Kong during his two-month election campaign. The city has never been so united. Ever since the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong has been divided into 'yellow ribbons' and 'blue ribbons'. Yellow ribbons refer to those who supported the Umbrella protests for a universal suffrage of the city's leader without Beijing's screening, while blue ribbons are on the opposite end. This political polarisation was widened by the increasingly frequent calls for Hong Kong's independence.

Tsang was more than 20 percentage points ahead of Lam in a Hong Kong University poll. Tsang's supporters were entertaining the notion of a leader who would be on their side rather than simply kowtow to Beijing; and the notion of Beijing listening to the voice of Hong Kong's peoples.

But those supporters woke up to reality on 26 March. Despite Tsang's popularity, he still lost. Lam won with 777 votes out of only 1194 votes cast by the members of the Election Commitee, the society elites who decide the fate of Hong Kong on behalf of seven million residents. The result was predictable – a majority of the 1194 voters are tycoons and elites with strong ties with Beijing, likely to vote according to Beijing's wishes. Lam, once chief secretary to current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, had promised to continue Leung's policies were she to be elected. People feared that Lam become 'CY 2.0' – a pejorative Lam attempted to elude with a number of policy announcements prior to the election.

Lam's relative unpopularity means she will have a tough road ahead from the moment she is sworn in on 1 July, also the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Her honeymoon period is likely to be non-existent, as she will be challenged by both the general population and the Legislative Council, making governance difficult.

With such little public support, Lam will likely have to rely on the Liaison Office (Beijing's representative in Hong Kong) to rally for her behind the curtain. In return, she will be left with no choice but to accommodate Beijing's interests.

But Lam is no fool. After winning the election, she vowed to 'unite our society to move forward'. In the week after the vote, she continued to make public appearances and give media interviews in the hope of boosting her popularity. She also attempted to show her desire to unite Hong Kong by vowing to recruit talent for her cabinet without regard for political affiliation and by addressing issues of public concern, such as calling for Leung to abandon an unpopular city-wide primary school assessment. Lam was clearly aware that in order to free herself from Beijing's control, she must find ways to build her popular appeal. However, the day after she won the election, nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement were arrested. Although neither the government nor Lam indicated the move had anything to do with the election, it was widely seen as a tactic to demonstrate authority. Leung's government also rejected Lam's plead to abolish the primary school assessment.

In less than three months, President Xi Jinping will likely grace Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover. Traditionally, 1 July is a day for major protest in Hong Kong. How many will take to the streets to voice their desire for democracy after such a frustrating election remains to be seen, but another political battle between Hong Kong and Beijing has already begun.

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