HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s new leader Carrie Lam pledged Sunday to mend political rifts after winning a vote dismissed as a sham by democracy activists who fear the loss of the city’s cherished freedoms.
Hong Kong has been semi-autonomous since it was handed back to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997. But 20 years on, there are serious concerns Beijing is disregarding the handover agreement designed to protect Hong Kong’s way of life.
The former career civil servant was chosen as the next chief executive by a mainly pro-China committee and was widely seen as Beijing’s favourite to head the city.
Critics say she will deepen divisions in the city, but Lam said she wanted to unify Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority will be to heal the divide,” she said after her victory.
Lam pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous “one country, two systems” set-up and protect its core values, including freedom of expression and an independent judiciary.
Asked how she would address concerns that Beijing is tightening its grip, she said there was “no difference” between the Hong Kong government and Chinese authorities’ views in terms of safeguarding the city’s status and freedoms.
It was the first leadership vote since mass “Umbrella Movement” rallies calling for fully free elections in 2014 failed to secure reforms, and came after a turbulent term under current chief executive Leung Chun-ying.
Leung, who is seen by opponents as a Beijing puppet, will step down in July after five years in charge. Lam, who will be the city’s first woman leader, was formerly his deputy.
An emotional Lam, 59, bowed to supporters as it was announced she had won comprehensively with 777 votes against 365 for John Tsang, seen as a more moderate establishment figure.
The third and most liberal candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, received just 21 votes.
Around three quarters of the 1,194 members of the election committee were from the pro-China camp.
Lam is intensely disliked by the pro-democracy camp after promoting the Beijing-backed political reform package that sparked 2014’s massive protests.
That plan would have allowed the public to choose the city’s leader in 2017, but would have insisted that candidates must be vetted first. It was eventually voted down in parliament by pro-democracy lawmakers and reforms have been shelved ever since.
Since then frustration among activists has sparked calls for self-determination for Hong Kong, or even a complete split from China. Hundreds of protesters including leading pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong gathered near the harbourfront voting venue.
Nearby, pro-China supporters played marching music surrounded by national and city flags. Rebel legislator Nathan Law, who as a lawmaker has an automatic vote, said he would enter a blank ballot.
“It is still a selection from the Beijing government,” Law told AFP.
Representatives of a broad number of sectors, from business to education, sit on the committee that chooses the chief executive, but the vast majority of the city’s 3.8 million electorate have no say in the vote.
Pro-democracy committee members threw their weight behind Lam’s main rival, ex-finance secretary Tsang. But activists said he was still on Beijing’s side and rejected the vote outright as unrepresentative of Hong Kong people.
Lam will face an uphill struggle to unite a city in which young people in particular have lost faith in the political system and their own overall prospects.
With salaries too low to meet the cost of property in an overpriced market fuelled by mainland money, getting ahead in life is seen as increasingly difficult.
While she said Sunday she wanted more democracy for Hong Kong, Lam said she intended to prioritise social issues such as housing.
Critics fear she will pave the way for more interference from Beijing after an number of incidents under Leung that rocked public confidence.
They include the disappearance in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about China’s political elite. The booksellers all resurfaced in detention on the mainland.
Last year, the disqualification from parliament of two publicly elected pro-independence lawmakers following Beijing’s intervention also prompted accusations the city’s legislature had been seriously compromised.