HONG KONG — The college students sat quietly as troopers goose-stepped into the Hong Kong highschool’s auditorium, hoisting a Chinese flag. The M.C.s spoke in Mandarin, the language of mainland China, quite than Cantonese, the town’s predominant language. Then Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief govt, took the rostrum, to extol the significance of patriotism in the town’s youth.
It was Mrs. Lam’s fourth go to to a faculty in current weeks — a placing depend for a chief who for 2 years had barely set foot on a campus. When anti-government protests engulfed the town in 2019, younger individuals had been among the many most devoted contributors, with excessive schoolers boycotting classes and forming human chains.
But now, because the scene this month on the faculty, Pui Kiu, made clear, issues had modified: The pro-China aspect — and by extension, Mrs. Lam — was again in cost. While a Hong Kong cliché lengthy held that the chief govt serves two masters, Beijing and the Hong Kong individuals, the 2019 protests and the following disaster crystallized that just one actually mattered.
With that readability, Mrs. Lam, 64, these days appears to be a girl reinvigorated, nothing just like the chief who, on the peak of the protests, disappeared from view for days on finish.
She has laid out an formidable imaginative and prescient to “completely solve” Hong Kong’s housing concern, by constructing greater than 900,000 models in the town’s largely undeveloped northern outskirts. She visited the town of Wuhan this month to strengthen Hong Kong’s financial and cultural ties with the mainland. She has given prolonged media interviews, smilingly dismissing issues that the town is being crushed by Beijing.
“I am very confident about Hong Kong,” she said at an awards ceremony last month. “I hope I were 30 years younger, so I could start to contribute to Hong Kong and benefit from a much better Hong Kong for a longer period of time.”
Mrs. Lam has dodged questions on whether or not she’s going to search a second time period in March, and her workplace declined to make her accessible for an interview. But observers say her demeanor factors to a girl making an attempt for 5 extra years in energy.
The draw is clear. If she leaves workplace now, she might be remembered because the most unpopular chief executive in Hong Kong historical past, whose fumbling response to a well-liked rebellion ushered in a drastic rollback of the city’s civil liberties by Beijing, a nosedive for Hong Kong’s world stature and an exodus of residents. Few in even the pro-Beijing camp are keen to defend her.
But if Beijing permits her one other time period, she may attempt to rehabilitate her legacy, by tackling Hong Kong’s housing scarcity, a difficulty that has stymied each chief earlier than her, and accelerating integration with the mainland, which some argue would elevate the town’s economic system. No earlier chief govt has accomplished two phrases — certainly an attractive problem for Mrs. Lam, a self-avowed perfectionist.
Even Mrs. Lam’s critics acknowledge that she is a ferociously competent administrator who could effectively have the ability to push by means of the housing and employment insurance policies she has outlined. Perhaps extra essential, Beijing’s political purge has worn out nearly all opposition. On Sunday, Hong Kong will maintain its first legislative elections since Beijing remade the system this spring to permit solely government-approved candidates to run.
More in doubt is Mrs. Lam’s capacity to persuade Hong Kongers that Beijing’s imaginative and prescient is certainly higher, and for whom. While Beijing asserts that financial positive aspects will heal Hong Kong’s social rifts, and that nearer ties with the mainland will foster pure patriotism, the pro-democracy camp insists that nothing will enhance with out a restoration of political rights.
That could also be why, for all her rhetoric concerning the future, Mrs. Lam has additionally targeted on recasting the previous — in explicit, what Beijing meant when it promised Hong Kong, a former British colony, semi-autonomy.
Mrs. Lam as soon as championed the direct election of the chief govt. (Currently, Hong Kong’s chief govt is chosen by a committee of 1,500, in a vote overseen by Beijing.) Last month, she mentioned it was “wrong” to assume that Beijing “owes” Hong Kongers common suffrage, regardless that it’s laid out as a aim in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
Mrs. Lam’s transformation was a “big irony,” mentioned Jasper Tsang, a founding father of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing social gathering. “Following the protests in 2019, her job now is to try to wipe out what we all believed before — including herself.”
For most of Mrs. Lam’s profession, she marketed herself as a extra reasonable determine, dedicated to Beijing however open to compromise.
She rose to the highest job in 2017 to succeed Leung Chun-ying, a Beijing loyalist whose arduous line on pro-democracy protests in 2014 made him deeply unpopular. Mrs. Lam introduced herself as a substitute as an environment friendly workhorse — extra administrator than politician. She spoke of her time as head prefect at her Catholic all-girls’ highschool, the place she cried on the uncommon occasion she didn’t place prime of her class. Her official biography listed all 20 authorities positions she held earlier than changing into chief govt.
She additionally leaned into her status as a negotiator who had led the government’s talks with scholar leaders in the course of the 2014 protests. She appeared snug with Hong Kong’s historically shut relationship with the West, as soon as talking of eager to retire along with her husband and two sons in Britain.
One of her earliest acts as chief govt was to nominate former opposition leaders to her cupboard. In March 2018, she attended a Democratic Party fund-raiser and donated practically $4,000 — the first time a chief govt had publicly given to an opposition social gathering.
“At the beginning, she did try to be more of a unifying figure,” mentioned Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “All parties were really trying their best to heal the division of society.”
Mrs. 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 response to the invoice, ballooned into monthslong condemnations of Beijing writ giant.
If Mrs. Lam in the start of her tenure had appeared to string the impossibility of serving two masters, that proved unsustainable. In June 2020, the central authorities, having misplaced endurance with the Hong Kong authorities’s response, bypassed Mrs. Lam’s administration to impose a sweeping safety legislation.
In the next months, dozens of opposition leaders were arrested, a pro-democracy newspaper was forced to close and the United States authorities sanctioned Mrs. Lam.
Yet Beijing’s intervention would show a lifeline for her. No longer was there any query of whether or not the chief govt answered to Beijing or the Hong Kong individuals. Now, Mrs. Lam simply needed to play alongside.
“There are all sorts of ironies in life,” she mentioned in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post concerning the protests. “You thought that was the end of the world, and suddenly it’s not. It was the beginning of a bright future.”
Mrs. Lam’s rhetoric now mirrors that of the Chinese Communist Party, with its mixture of strident denunciations and bureaucratic jargon. At information conferences, she sniffs on the West’s “so-called democracy.” In her annual coverage deal with this 12 months, she singled out the Communist Party’s authority over Hong Kong affairs, not like earlier addresses in which she didn’t point out the social gathering.
Charles Ho, a pro-Beijing tycoon who has criticized Mrs. Lam’s dealing with of the protests, mentioned she would have been fired or demoted if she had been a mainland official. But after the safety legislation, Mrs. Lam had labored arduous to earn again Beijing’s good will, he mentioned.
“Whenever she makes speeches, she is thanking the central government or mentioning Xi,” Mr. Ho mentioned, referring to Xi Jinping, China’s chief. “She learned to please.”
Future debates about Mrs. Lam’s legacy will flip in half on the query of how a lot selection she had in her destiny. Was she a keen servant to the social gathering’s quest to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms? Or was she doing the most effective she may in the face of Beijing’s authoritarianism?
Either means, Mrs. Lam seems to relish the brand new state of affairs. In July, for instance, when retreating from a marketing campaign promise to increase anti-bribery rules to cowl the chief govt, she defined that the chief’s accountability was to Beijing.
“She is, sort of, above the executive, the legislature and the judiciary,” she said.
Mrs. Lam has been liberated by her full embrace of Beijing, mentioned Allan Zeman, a actual property developer and adviser to Mrs. Lam. “You can’t please everyone,” he mentioned. “She has her priorities straight now.”
Nowhere has her confidence been clearer than in her proposal to construct a “Northern Metropolis” throughout the border from the Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen, changing what’s at the moment a patchwork of cities and industrial areas with a high-tech hub that might home 2.5 million individuals. In Mrs. Lam’s telling, the project would ease the housing crunch and bind the town to the mainland all in one.
Similar proposals have stalled for years due to opposition from villagers and environmentalists. But Mrs. Lam mentioned that was not a drawback, as a result of the safety legislation had restored “social order.”
Her pitch would possibly work. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers, typically seen as bellwethers of the central authorities’ opinion, have printed editorials praising Mrs. Lam’s current speeches. No different chief govt candidates have stepped ahead, maybe signaling approval from Beijing, mentioned Willy Lam, a Hong Kong political scholar.
“There are many people willing to bend over backward to please Beijing,” he mentioned. But Mrs. Lam “has a credible track record in using the civil service to attain specific goals mandated by Beijing.”
Indeed, Mrs. Lam appears to have been more and more relegated to anticipating — or racing to maintain up with — the central authorities’s calls for.
In the autumn, officers from the Central Liaison Office, Beijing’s arm in Hong Kong, fanned out throughout the town to go to hundreds of low-income residents, in a extremely publicized present of sympathy for his or her residing situations. Mrs. Lam appeared caught off guard: She acknowledged to reporters that she “did not realize” the size of their outreach till she examine it in the newspaper.
Every week after these visits, Mrs. Lam descended on a number of low-income households herself.
Mrs. Lam, for all her new bravura, appears conscious of how tenuous her obvious political resurrection is. Her current public appearances have been tightly scripted. In August, she held her first town hall in two years — with 90 of 106 attendees handpicked by the federal government.
Mrs. Lam’s go to to Pui Kiu this month was equally managed. The faculty is understood to be pro-Beijing. After Mrs. Lam spoke, she introduced plaques to donors, smiling with every for a few seconds. She presided over the opening of the varsity’s health room, posing for pictures behind a row of stationary bikes.
She didn’t converse to any college students. Then, she strode to a automobile close by and disappeared inside.
Austin Ramzy and Joy Dong contributed reporting.