Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor: Building a Better Hong Kong
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor:
On March 26, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was elected Hong Kong’s leader, topping off a 36year government career with the honor of becoming the first female chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. On July 1, the former chief secretary for administration will be sworn in as head of the international financial and shipping hub for the coming five years.
Lam won 777 votes from 1,194 election committee members, beating rivals John Tsang Chun-wah, a former Hong Kong financial secretary who took 365 votes, and Woo Kwok-hing, a retired high court judge who received 21 votes. “I shall do my utmost to uphold ‘one country, two systems’ and guard our core values,” Lam said at a press conference after winning the election. “Through care, listening and action, I will build a better Hong Kong.”
Difficult Early Life
Lam was born in 1957 into a povertystricken family in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, one of the city’s notorious areas of overcrowded tenement buildings. The fourth of the five children in the family, Lam was born in the Year of Rooster. The Chinese believe that people born in this year grow up wise, passionate about the job at hand and full of integrity—virtues ideal for leadership. But she would have to practice the virtue of patience for many years. As a child, Lam showed great enthusiasm for learning from a very young age.
Lam’s father was a migrant from Shanghai who ran a small business, and her mother was a housewife. Neither had received much education. However, they proved wise and capable parents, especially her mother, who noticed her daughter’s passion for reading and studying, and did whatever she could to support her. “My mother is my idol,” Lam once declared in an interview. “To help me receive a better education, she devoted all of her resources into getting me admitted to a prestigious primary school.”
She studied at a renowned Catholic girls’ school in her neighborhood, where she finished both primary and secondary education. She consistently ranked among the top students at the school, and produced the best score on almost every final annual exam. “Once I only got the fourthbest score on the final exam, which got me so frustrated that I sobbed about it after arriving home,” Lam recalled. “But even that experience taught me a lesson: You cannot always be the best, and sometimes, you shouldn’t care so much about losing face.”
After graduation, Lam was admitted to the University of Hong Kong, where she chose to study social work. After her first year at the university, she switched majors to sociology “to better understand society and better participate in social activities.” In 1980, Lam graduated with a bachelor 's degree in social sciences and joined Hong Kong Administrative Services the same year, where she began a nearly four-decade career in government.
In 1982, Lam went to England for a oneyear course in development studies at Cambridge University, sponsored by the Hong Kong government. Upon returning home, she was gradually promoted through various governmental departments including health, security and finance, and social welfare.
Lam became known as Hong Kong’s “Iron Lady” and as a tough fighter who always got her way. Such qualities are exemplified by her various projects. When the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic struck the city in 2003, Lam and three other civil servants launched the We Care Fund to raise money to educate children who had lost parents to the disease. Within three months, she had raised about 80 million Hong Kong dollars. Across the next decade, many children affected by the epidemic graduated from college. To this day, the committee overseeing the We Care Fund still meets regularly, and Lam hardly misses a meeting.
The compassionate and grassroots official has a natural affinity for the underprivileged. And Lam always stresses that actions speak louder than words. She immersed herself in practical work instead of networking with perceived bigwigs, which caused some to perceive her as “cold.” “She never made empty promises,” one colleague declared. “But she will go out of her way to help when problems are brought to her.” Once, an advocate for disabled people suggested to her that the government fund a breathing apparatus for the severely disabled. Lam replied with real action only three weeks later. “Thanks to your suggestions, we have launched new projects to address your concerns,” she wrote in an email to the advocate.
The fighter has handled many tough cases: During her days in the Social Welfare Department, Lam helped overcome Hong Kong’s severe fiscal deficits. In the Development Bureau she was met with demonstrations when she took action against unauthorized construction in the New Territories. As chief secretary for administration, she took the lead in launching the five-step process for Hong Kong’s constitutional development.
“Heal the Divide”
In the post-war era, Asia had few free markets other than Japan and Hong Kong. The lack of economic openness in neighboring areas gave Hong Kong tremendous advantages. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the city’s economy developed at amazing speed and its residents glowed with pride. However, in the modern era, an increasing number of emerging Asian markets has gradually stripped Hong Kong of its advantages as a free port, and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. Against this backdrop, Lam is expected to face many challenges during her five-year term, and needs to “heal the divide,” the goal towards which she pledged to work in her post- election victory speech.
To succeed, Lam will need a lot more of the pragmatism she exhibited during her campaign. She emphasized the importance of a stable educational environment for young people and the necessity of understanding the needs of teachers, parents and students. She hopes to engage more skilled people to restore a more stable and talentoriented environment in Hong Kong. She has noted that many low-to-middle-income Hong Kong residents spend their life savings renting or buying a small apartment, and called for the construction of more units affordable for first-time home buyers.
But pragmatism alone will not deliver every promise. “Healing the divide” could take years of efforts. So far, Lam has shown the will and capabilities to excel in the role. “Lam has shown goodwill to all of Hong Kong society, including opposition parties, since her election victory,” opined Tian Feilong, a legal expert and associate professor at Beijing University of Aeronau-
tics & Astronautics in an interview. “It is clear that she is looking for a new management style through which the government becomes more inclusive and addresses the concerns of Hong Kong’s young people.” Lam’s good communication skills and charisma will likely aid reconstruction of Hong Kong society—and some posit her gender may play a positive role.
“In the next five years, there is plenty of work ahead and problems that will not be easy to solve,” Lam admitted in her speech. “My heart is the same as it has always been, except more humbled. I am firmly optimistic about the road ahead.” She is well-prepared to hold Hong Kong’s torch.
April 11, 2017: Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meets with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, in Beijing. by Ju Peng/xinhua
March 26, 2017: Lam (center) poses as she declares her victory in the Hong Kong chief executive election, vowing to lead Hong Kong forward in solidarity. IC
Lam and her husband Lam Siu-por in the 1980s.
September 22, 2014: Lam (left), then Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration, gives a souvenir to Shan Jixiang, curator of the Beijing-based Palace Museum, at the opening ceremony of the Cultural and Artistic Talents Summit in Hong Kong. by Li Peng/xinhua
February 4, 2017: Lam takes a selfie with members of the Hong Kong Squash Team. IC
August 27, 2016: Lam, then Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration, and Liu Peng, then director of the General Administration of Sport of China, greet people as the Chinese mainland delegation for the Rio 2016 Olympics arrives in Hong Kong for a three- day visit. IC