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Can a ‘very assured’ Carrie Lam salvage her legacy in Hong Kong?

The scholars sat quietly as infantrymen goose-stepped into the Hong Kong highschool’s auditorium, hoisting a Chinese language flag. The emcees spoke in Mandarin, the language of mainland China, quite than Cantonese, town’s important language. Then Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader government, took the rostrum, to extol the significance of patriotism within the town’s early life.

It was once Lam’s fourth discuss with to a college in fresh weeks — a placing rely for a pace-setter who for 2 years had slightly set foot on a campus. When anti-government protests engulfed town in 2019, younger other people have been some of the maximum faithful individuals, with excessive schoolers boycotting categories and forming human chains.

However now, because the scene this month on the faculty, Pui Kiu, made transparent, issues had modified: The professional-China aspect — and by way of extension, Lam — was once again in fee. Whilst a Hong Kong cliché lengthy held that the manager government serves two masters — Beijing and the Hong Kong other people — the 2019 protests and the following disaster crystallized that just one in reality mattered.

With that readability, Lam, 64, in recent years appears to be a girl reinvigorated, not anything just like the chief who, on the top of the protests, disappeared from view for days on finish.

She has laid out an bold imaginative and prescient to “utterly remedy” Hong Kong’s housing factor, by way of development greater than 900,000 devices within the town’s in large part undeveloped northern outskirts. She visited town of Wuhan, China, this month to beef up Hong Kong’s financial and cultural ties with the mainland. She has given long media interviews, smilingly pushing aside issues that town is being overwhelmed by way of Beijing.

“I’m very assured about Hong Kong,” she stated at an awards rite remaining month. “I’m hoping I have been 30 years more youthful, so I may just begin to give a contribution to Hong Kong and have the benefit of a significantly better Hong Kong for an extended time period.”

Lam has dodged questions on whether or not she is going to search to serve a 2nd time period in March, and her place of job declined to make her to be had for an interview. However observers say her demeanor issues to a lady making an attempt for 5 extra years in energy.

The draw is plain. If she leaves place of job now, she will likely be remembered as probably the most unpopular leader government in Hong Kong historical past, whose fumbling reaction to a well-liked rebellion ushered in a drastic rollback of town’s civil liberties by way of Beijing, a nosedive for Hong Kong’s world stature and an exodus of citizens. Few in even the pro-Beijing camp are prepared to shield her.

But when Beijing lets in her any other time period, she may just attempt to rehabilitate her legacy, by way of tackling Hong Kong’s housing scarcity, a topic that has stymied each chief earlier than her, and accelerating integration with the mainland, which some argue would carry town’s economic system. No earlier leader government has finished two phrases — undoubtedly an attractive problem for Lam, a self-avowed perfectionist.

Even Lam’s critics recognize that she is a ferociously competent administrator who might smartly be capable of push in the course of the housing and employment insurance policies she has defined. Most likely extra essential, Beijing’s political purge has burnt up nearly all opposition. On Sunday, Hong Kong will dangle its first legislative elections since Beijing remade the machine this spring to permit handiest government-approved applicants to run.

For many of Lam’s profession, she marketed herself as a extra reasonable determine, dedicated to Beijing however open to compromise.

She rose to the highest process in 2017 to prevail Leung Chun-ying, a Beijing loyalist whose laborious line on pro-democracy protests in 2014 made him deeply unpopular. Lam introduced herself as an alternative as an effective workhorse — extra administrator than flesh presser. She spoke of her time as head prefect at her Catholic all-girls’ highschool, the place she cried at the uncommon example she didn’t position best of her elegance. Her professional biography indexed all 20 authorities positions she held earlier than turning into leader government.

She additionally leaned into her recognition as a negotiator who had led the federal government’s talks with scholar leaders right through the 2014 protests. She gave the impression happy with Hong Kong’s historically shut courting with the West, as soon as talking of in need of to retire along with her husband and two sons in Britain.

Certainly one of her earliest acts as leader government was once to nominate former opposition leaders to her Cupboard. In March 2018, she attended a Democratic Birthday celebration fundraiser and donated just about $4,000 — the primary time a prime government had publicly given to an opposition birthday celebration.

“At the start, she did you ought to be extra of a unifying determine,” stated Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “All events have been in reality making an attempt their very best to heal the department of society.”

It wouldn’t remaining.

Lam by no means anticipated the fury of the backlash to her proposal in 2019 to permit extraditions to mainland China. Public demonstrations, which started in keeping with the invoice, ballooned into monthslong condemnations of Beijing writ massive.

If Lam at first of her tenure had looked as if it would thread the impossibility of serving two masters, that proved unsustainable. In June 2020, the central authorities, having misplaced endurance with the Hong Kong authorities’s reaction, bypassed Lam’s management to impose a sweeping safety regulation.

Within the following months, dozens of opposition leaders have been arrested, a pro-democracy newspaper was once compelled to near and the U.S. authorities imposed sanctions on Lam.

But Beijing’s intervention would turn out a lifeline for her. Now not was once there any query of whether or not the manager government spoke back to Beijing or the Hong Kong other people. Now, Lam simply needed to play alongside.

“There are all types of ironies in existence,” she stated in a up to date interview with the South China Morning Put up in regards to the protests. “You idea that was once the tip of the arena, and all at once it’s now not. It was once the start of a vibrant long term.”

Lam’s rhetoric now mirrors that of the Chinese language Communist Birthday celebration, with its mixture of strident denunciations and bureaucratic jargon. At information meetings, she sniffs on the West’s “so-called democracy.” In her annual coverage deal with this yr, she singled out the Communist Birthday celebration’s authority over Hong Kong affairs, in contrast to previous addresses by which she didn’t point out the birthday celebration.

Charles Ho, a pro-Beijing magnate who has criticized Lam’s dealing with of the protests, stated she would were fired or demoted if she have been a mainland professional. However after the safety regulation, Lam labored laborious to earn again Beijing’s goodwill, he stated.

“Each time she makes speeches, she is thanking the central authorities or bringing up Xi,” Ho stated, regarding Xi Jinping, China’s chief. “She discovered to delight.”

Long run debates about Lam’s legacy will flip partially at the query of the way a lot selection she had in her destiny. Used to be she a prepared servant to the birthday celebration’s quest to weigh down Hong Kong’s freedoms? Or was once she doing the most productive she may just within the face of Beijing’s authoritarianism?

Both approach, Lam seems to relish the brand new situation. In July, as an example, when taking flight from a marketing campaign promise to increase anti-bribery laws to hide the manager government, she defined that the chief’s responsibility was once to Beijing.

“She is, form of, above the chief, the legislature and the judiciary,” she stated.

Lam has been liberated by way of her complete include of Beijing, stated Allan Zeman, an actual property developer and adviser to Lam. “You’ll’t please everybody,” he stated. “She has her priorities immediately now.”

Nowhere has her self belief been clearer than in her proposal to construct a “Northern City” around the border from the Chinese language town of Shenzhen, changing what’s recently a patchwork of cities and commercial spaces with a high-tech hub that will space 2.5 million other people. In Lam’s telling, the undertaking would ease the housing crunch and bind town to the mainland multi functional.

Identical proposals have stalled for years on account of opposition from villagers and environmentalists. However Lam stated that was once now not an issue, for the reason that safety regulation had restored “social order.”

Her pitch may paintings. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers, ceaselessly noticed as bellwethers of the central government’ opinion, have revealed editorials praising Lam’s fresh speeches. No different leader government applicants have stepped ahead, most likely signaling approval from Beijing, stated Willy Lam, a Hong Kong political student.

“There are lots of other people prepared to bend over backward to delight Beijing,” he stated. However Lam “has a reputable monitor file in the usage of the civil carrier to score particular objectives mandated by way of Beijing.”

Certainly, Lam turns out to were more and more relegated to expecting — or racing to stay alongside of — the central authorities’s calls for.

Within the fall, officers from the Central Liaison Place of business, Beijing’s arm in Hong Kong, fanned out around the town to discuss with hundreds of low-income citizens, in a extremely publicized display of sympathy for his or her residing stipulations. Lam seemed stuck off guard: She said to newshounds that she “didn’t understand” the size in their outreach till she examine it within the newspaper.

Every week after the ones visits, Lam descended on a number of low-income families herself.

Lam, for all her new bravura, turns out conscious about how tenuous her obvious political resurrection is. Her fresh public appearances were tightly scripted. In August, she held her first the city corridor in two years — with 90 of 106 attendees hand-picked by way of the federal government.

Lam’s discuss with to Pui Kiu this month was once in a similar fashion managed. The college is understood to be pro-Beijing. After Lam spoke, she introduced plaques to donors, smiling with every for a couple of seconds. She presided over the hole of the varsity’s health room, posing for footage at the back of a row of desk bound motorcycles.

She didn’t discuss to any scholars. Then, she strode to a automobile within sight and disappeared within.

This text in the beginning seemed in The New York Occasions.

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