Law & Crime Opinion Politics & Protest

No longer an apolitical technocrat, Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam must learn to engage critics

By Thomas E. Kellogg

Some might argue that Ms. Lam is a dedicated civil servant and a hardworking technocrat who only wants the best for Hong Kong, and that her mishandling of the extradition bill is due to the fact that, like many longtime civil servants, she is blind to ways in which politics can intrude on policymaking.

Even Ms. Lam’s most ardent critics would grant that she has served Hong Kong – in many ways quite well – for decades. And no doubt her nearly forty years in the civil service shaped her view of how policies are formed, and how they should be executed.

Carrie Lam.

Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Without doubt, Ms. Lam’s ham-handed responses to her critics betrayed a lack of understanding of the give-and-take of the political realm, and an inability to engage with – much less persuade – those on the other side. Her relative inexperience in the political realm surely played a role in her recent stumbles.

See also: Carrie Lam and the Civil Service Part I: Not a typical official

That said, key elements of the government’s initial reform proposals, as well as its efforts to salvage the bill as criticism began to mount, suggest less a beleaguered technocrat, and more an overtly political creature seeking to respond to the particular power dynamics and incentives that shape elite politics in Hong Kong.

Take the core elements of the government’s bill, for example. As many critics – myself included – have pointed out, the bill fell short in terms of provisions that would protect human rights. Such provisions – such as a role for LegCo in overseeing extradition, as is the case under existing law – would ensure that Beijing could not misuse the new extradition mechanism for political purposes.

Why would Ms. Lam put forward a bill that failed to adhere to international best practice on human rights? And why would she stick to her guns when key authorities – including both the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Hong Kong Law Society – pointed out key flaws in the government’s proposals? Impossible to know for sure, but it seems likely that her reading of what Beijing wanted from the final bill may have influenced her thinking. After all, her political future is in Beijing’s hands: the pro-Beijing Election Committee will decide on her second term, not the people of Hong Kong.

police headquarters june 21 china extradition protest (6)

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The Lam administration’s many misleading statements on the extradition bill also undercut the argument that Lam is first and foremost a technocrat. Politicians lie when it suits their political interests to do so; committed technocrats, when caught making a misstatement, acknowledge the mistake. Ms. Lam repeatedly suggested that her proposals were meant to fix a “loophole” in Hong Kong law, and held fast to that line, even as others pointed out that Hong Kong and Beijing explicitly agreed in 1997 to leave aside the thorny question of extradition to a later date. Far from being a loophole, the absence of any agreement on extradition between Hong Kong and Beijing was a deliberate choice, designed to ensure the success of One Country, Two Systems.

Once that fact was pointed out, why not acknowledge the mistake and move on? Was it because she saw some political value in selling her proposals as a mere technocratic fix, and that she thought she had all of the effective power she needed – including a majority in the LegCo – such that honest debate wasn’t a high priority?

Third, if she merely wanted what was best for Hong Kong, and if her goal truly was to have a mechanism to resolve cases like the Chan Tong-kai murder case (a real tragedy, to be sure), why not consult widely and incorporate the best views? Why not ensure sufficient time for public consultation and LegCo debate, instead of trying to short-circuit both avenues? Instead, Ms. Lam moved to pass the bill at lightning speed, even if doing so meant further harm to LegCo’s already deeply damaged processes and institutional comity. Here too, Ms. Lam’s strategy for getting the bill done suggests a (mistaken, as it turns out) belief in power politics, and shows little of the technocrat’s regard for open and transparent processes.

extradition china protest rally hong kong

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Finally, the administration’s efforts to salvage the bill also show a clear political bias towards the business community, and a thinly-veiled willingness to disregard the views of almost all others, including those in the pan-democratic camp. (The move to strike certain economic crimes from the bill is perhaps the best example of this, which, as the Bar Association has pointed out, makes little sense from a legal perspective.) Longtime pan-democratic stalwarts like Martin Lee and Anson Chan, who led the charge against the bill, were seen as more or less fully marginalized, if not outright irrelevant.

In other words, the Lam administration was not acting in some sort of apolitical, technocratic way. Instead, it was looking to placate key players in the business community, and to steamroll those it thought had no effective power, including the people of Hong Kong.

As it turned out, ignoring the concerns of the public turned out to be fatal for the bill’s prospects after all. Ms Lam badly misread the public pulse, but only because she had too fully internalized the negative political lessons of the past several years.

carrie lam

Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

In the weeks to come, there will be much speculation about Ms. Lam’s motivations for introducing the extradition bill in the first place. At the same time, the people of Hong Kong, and concerned observers around the world, are wondering whether and when Ms Lam may make a renewed push to win final passage of the now-stalled reform bill. Here’s hoping that Ms. Lam will, going forward, embrace genuine debate and respectful dialogue, including with those who disagree with her proposals. After all, she may still wish to hide behind a civil servant’s mask, but she’s a politician now.

Thomas E. Kellogg is the executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown Law School.


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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No longer an apolitical technocrat, Hong Kong's Carrie Lam must learn to engage critics