How Carrie Lam Beggars Belief

She may be Beijing’s openly preferred candidate for Chief Executive of Hong Kong, but lifetime bureaucrat Carrie Lam has a lot to learn about politics. Indeed she seems to have a lot to learn about how 99% of people in the territory live.

Since declaring her candidacy for the top job earlier this month, Lam has amazed and amused readers, at least of those newspapers willing to report them, a series of gaffes.

In the latest she gave a HK$500 (US$64) bill to a beggar lying on a street. Doubtless this was supposed to be a sign of her generosity. But not only was a huge sum but showed her ignorance of what most Hong Kong people know all too well: that probably 99% of beggars in the territory are from the Mainland.

In this case, on being addressed by Lam in Cantonese the beggar could only reply in Putonghua. Where was she from? Hubei! So she had come all the way from there – a distance of roughly 1,200 kilometers, to beg. Later questioned by reporters she said she had been “brought” to Hong Kong by relatives needing to pay off debts.

Mainland beggars, many limbless or sporting scars, are a common sight on Hong Kong streets but most are controlled by minders who doubtless take their cut from whatever is collected. Hong Kong itself is supposed to have a welfare system which makes begging unnecessary. It is anyway technically illegal. Needless to say, Lam’s “generosity” to a Mainlander trying to prise money and sympathy out of locals (and foreign visitors who would not be aware of the begging scams) did not impress.

Nor did Lam impress when it was revealed that she summoned a taxi for a midnight dash from her luxury serviced apartment in downtown Hong Kong to the mansion half way to the Peak which she was vacating on stepping down as chief secretary for administration to become a candidate for chief executive. The urgent need: for toilet paper! Few found her explanation that the management of this large and very expensive serviced apartment complex could not provide toilet paper. Or that there was no convenience store within a short walk of the apartment. For many it just showed how top bureaucrats expected to be waited on day and night and spare no expense to get their desired brand of toilet paper.

Lack of familiarity with the basics of Hong Kong life was further revealed when she travelled on the Mass Transit Railway. Paying with an Octopus card, the stored value card used for most public transport journeys in Hong Kong for the past 20 years, she had to have an aide explain its operation. This is a person who likes to present herself as being more concerned with the needs of ordinary folk than her rival, John Tsang, the former Financial Secretary, who is more popular, according to opinion polls, despite being painted as a friend of the tycoons.

She has also gives rather otherworldly explanations of why she decided to run for chief executive after the incumbent, Leung Chun-ying, announced he would not serve another term. Firstly, she, as a Christian, claimed to feel a calling from God. That caused some embarrassment for the overtly atheist Chinese Communist Party. Others wryly joked that she was guided by the red star over Beijing, not the one over Bethlehem.

The next explanation, as given to a select group of journalists, was that she was running because there would be a constitutional crisis if someone not approved by Beijing was elected. That was clearly ridiculous as the voting system and composition of the 1,200 strong electorate ensure that no one has the slightest hope of winning if Beijing is not willing to accept that person. For now, the party certainly favors Lam, but can live with Tsang or the other contenders, Regina Ip and Woo Kwok-hing (both of whose chances are now minimal). It switched horses at the last selection in 2012 when revelations about illegal extensions to his house undermined the public standing of the hitherto front-runner, Henry Tang.

Indeed, if Lam carries on putting her foot in her mouth, appearing cold and arrogant in contrast to Tsang, who knows how to work a crowd, it may just have to live with him rather than find itself pushing through someone who is unpopular even before she is sworn in. The brutal fact is that Lam’s standing with the public has fallen significantly since she announced her candidacy. That came after Tsang had been left waiting for weeks for permission from Beijing to resign as financial secretary and after Lam had announced, as a personal triumph, an agreement to for Beijing’s Palace Museum to have a permanent display at Hong Kong’s new West Kowloon cultural complex.

Desirable though that may be in principle, the secrecy which it had been hatched, breaching many procedural rules, showed Lam in a poor light – over-anxious to please Beijing and contemptuous of the norms of accountability by which civil servants are expected to operate. In short, recent weeks have shown her to be more like the deeply unpopular Leung than could have been foreseen.