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Open letter to a tearful Hong Kong leader: China needs you, Carrie Lam – enjoy your retirement

As Chief Executive Carrie Lam is notoriously impervious to advice, this letter is just a sort of thought experiment.


Dear Ms Lam,

Sorry to read that you had shed tears on television last week. I did a lot of television interviewing in my time and the interviewees all emerged from the experience dry-eyed. Weeping on the tube isn’t a good look for someone who was once described as an “iron lady with a will of steel.”

Carrie Lam cry

Carrie Lam interview with TVB. Photo: Screenshot.

Still, looking on the bright side, it was perhaps a better look than the equivalent performance in English, in which you came across like one of the robot receptionists they are reportedly deploying in Japanese capsule hotels these days.

This is not a complaint. Interesting piece in the Guardian the other day about the fact that people feel emotions less strongly when using second languages. I suggest you aim for a happy medium next time.

I am afraid there is a certain cynicism in media circles about your lachrymose meltdown. The naïve viewer watching television may erroneously suppose that he or she and you are more or less face-to-face, having a friendly chat. But of course we, and you, know better.

The interview is preceded by a negotiation phase about times and places. The interviewing organisation will give an idea of the topics to be covered.

The team arrives, or you arrive in the studio, and you are introduced to a wide range of people whose names you will instantly forget. Nothing to feel guilty about – they expect this. Then you will chat with the interviewer, who will give you a rather more specific idea of what questions to expect.

TVB reporters Carrie Lam

TVB reporters interviewing Carrie Lam. Photo: Screenshot.

There is then a long pause, in which you can contemplate your answers. During this time the cameraman in fiddling with his camera, the lighting man is fiddling with his lights, and the sound man will interrupt your cogitations with a polite request for you to run the microphone wire down the inside front of your blouse so that he doesn’t have to put his hand in a place where it does not usually belong.

Various people will conduct tests to see if their machinery is working, and you will be asked to say a few words to check sound levels. May I recommend “manacles, barnacles, follicles, testing?” It cheers up the crew.

The point of all this is that being interviewed is at the best of times a long-winded experience, preceded by a lot of time to prepare for what is to come. It involves sitting in a highly artificial situation surrounded by strangers. An emotional reaction to a question looks fishy.

Having said which, some people still do it. According to legend the late great Australian prime minister Bob Hawke actually announced in advance that he was going to make a tearful apology on national television and got away with it. But he was popular. You, alas…

extradition hong kong protest (11)

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Leaving aside the tears, though, I would really like to have a word on the matter which got you going, which was the question whether you had “betrayed Hong Kong,” and your answer, which was that you had made “great sacrifices” for the city.

Logically, I fear, your answer does not really settle the matter. It is perfectly possible that both the betrayal and sacrifices are perpetrated by the same person. As Oscar Wilde put it:

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!”

This is a verse from the “Ballad of Reading Gaol.” You could usefully read the rest of it, available here. It might make your government less eager to find legal pretexts for jailing its critics.

Let us consider first the sacrifices. My problem with this argument is that your position is in many ways an enviable one, even from the position of fully paid-up members of the middle classes like me.

You work in a large office. It has a private loo and a changing room. In the vicinity, but in smaller offices, is a fleet of underlings ready to undertake the parts of your job which are boring, repetitive or difficult? Your personal office space comfortably exceeds the acreage which your government considers adequate for the housing of a four-person family, or indeed for a larger one.

Your salary is not only larger than that of the president of the United States or the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It is actually larger than both of them put together. You are income-wise a global star, second only to the Prime Minister of Singapore. And this does not take into account the fact that you can also collect a generous government pension, an amenity which your government adamantly refuses to supply for the rest of us.

When it is time to go home you go down to the ground floor (is there a personal lift, I wonder?) where your chariot awaits. The driver is on overtime, but that does not matter. You are not paying him. We are.

Government House

Government House. Photo: GovHK.

He whisks you to Government House, where a further fleet of cooks, cleaners, bottle washers etc. waits to do your bidding. They are also on the taxpayer. Government House itself is a spacious palace. Frederick the Great thought 12 rooms were enough for his palace at Sans Souci. But that is not enough for you.

You have a tennis court in the garden, an unimaginable luxury even for people like Lufsig with two houses on the Peak. And if it is raining you can play tennis in your ballroom. It’s big enough.

Money and housing and servants are, I realise, not everything. Sacrifices may take other forms, like forgoing privacy, leisure, the long-awaited chance to pursue time-consuming hobbies or to join family members in some hospitable English-speaking country with no extradition treaty with China.

Still, you are left rather in the position of the man who asked the court for a lenient sentence because, having murdered his parents, he was now an orphan. Your situation is the result of your choices.

Extradition mass protest

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

This cannot be said of the Hongkongers who sleep in McDonald’s because they can’t afford air-conditioning, or the men who sleep under fly-overs because they can’t find a hospitable cage, or the old ladies I used to see collecting empty beer cans on Repulse Bay beach at 4 am because they had no other source of income.

Your “sacrifices” have to be measured against those you imposed on other people… without, I fear, even thinking about it.

As for the matter of betrayal, how many people have to walk down Hennessy Road before you get the message?

The attraction of One Country, Two Systems and the reason why the handover in 1997 was not marked by a wave of emigration or suicide, was that it offered continuity. As Deng Xiaoping put it in 1984: “Hong Kong’s current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life and its status as a free port and international trade and financial centre will remain unchanged…”.

Extradition mass protest

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

To put it less tactfully, the boundary between the Hong Kong SAR and the mainland is supposed to ensure that we are not subjected to mainland habits in the matters of politics, economics and law, which are respectively despotic, dirigiste and non-existent. And this happy state of affairs is supposed to persist for 50 years.

The year 2047 is not, as some of the People’s puppets repeatedly assert, the point at which we are supposed to be happily engulfed in the motherland’s caring bosom. It is the end of the period in which we were promised that important things would not change.

“Treason” is a strong word. But how else are we to characterise your importation of such habits as jailing dissidents, banning parties, deporting journalists, directing investment, and dispensing with the rule of law? If the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR wants to dismantle our defences what chance do we stand?

extradition protest clash smoke tear gas

Photo: Photo: inmediahk.net via Flickr.

Integration with the mainland may offer many advantages but it should not have escaped your notice that most of us do not want it. It is not your job to force it down our reluctant throats.

China needs you. Enjoy your retirement.

Smooches, Tim. 


Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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Open letter to a tearful Hong Kong leader: China needs you, Carrie Lam - enjoy your retirement