Why Carrie Lam is Beijing’s real preference for chief executive

Alex Lo
Carrie Lam (L) and Leung Chun-ying (R) attend a news conference in Hong Kong on November 7, 2016.
Justin Chin | Bloomberg | Getty Images

If Plato is right that the only people who should rule are those who don't want to, then Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is miles ahead of the other chief executive wannabes.

It would be hard to find a more mournful public figure announcing she might reconsider her intention to retire and run for the top job after all. Watching her on television, I thought she was on the verge of tears.

She said Leung Chun-ying's shock announcement not to seek a second term had left her with no choice but to consider running.

Poor woman, she thought she could retire and live happily ever after. Hong Kong politics just doesn't allow such happy endings. It swallows people whole and spits them out mercilessly. "It is tragic that at this time in Hong Kong," she said, referring to Leung's decision, "serving the community and protecting your family cannot both coexist and that those in politics would have to make such a difficult ­decision."

She might as well be talking about herself.

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Her predicament is that there is no one as acceptable to both Beijing and Hong Kong people as Lam at this time. She might not be ideal but the rest are less than desirable.

Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing might once have been the go-to person to head a public commission or investigation, but no one seriously thinks he could make it as a chief executive.

Legislative and Executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has been referred to as the "female 689", Leung's moniker for the low number of people on the election committee who voted him into office. Like Hillary Clinton, she came with too much political baggage. Many people loathe and distrust her instinctively the way they do with Leung.

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Finance secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's chief virtue is that he hasn't upset too many people in Hong Kong. Other than that, there seems to be little else to recommend him.

Perhaps the only real potential rival to Lam is Tsang Yok-sing, the former Legco president. He is a Beijing loyalist but also a moderate who is on reasonably good terms with most pan-democrats.

You can already hear Beijing, through intermediaries in Hong Kong, offering inducements and veiled threats for Lam to run. Once you ride on a tiger, or a panda, you don't get off so easily.

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