A charitable reading of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s recent remark that she was a 61-year-old woman putting in more than 10 hours of work every day was that she meant to inspire others. Instead, she only succeeded in offending her contemporaries.
Yeung Suen was among those for whom the chief executive’s comment lacked sensitivity.
He worked in a clothing factory, and when the industry died in Hong Kong he became a karaoke bar assistant and, when that shut, he tried to be a waiter in restaurants but got turned away for “looking too old”. With a bad back and left with no choice, he applied for Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) when he turned 60. With a CSSA monthly payment of about HK$3,500 (US$450), he spends less than HK$30 on each meal.
“The allowance is just enough for me to eke out a living,” the 64-year-old said.
The government tried to move the qualifying age for the elderly scheme from 60 to 65, sparking anger. Lam’s successive attempts to explain the decision and a U-turn of sorts have yet to set minds at ease.
“I don’t understand why they even want to cut it for seniors,” Yeung said.
The retiree’s family is not exactly begging for a handout – his 61-year-old wife still works at a vegetable stall in a wet market.
Yeung’s plight and the policy U-turn have come to symbolise all that is wrong with Lam’s administration this year: a disconnect with the public it aims to serve and growing anger that those in power seem to believe they know best.
While the growing unpopularity of the government will hurt only Lam’s administration, there is every fear among its supporters – the pro-Beijing camp to be precise – that she could hurt their election chances later this year. As if dealing with the pan-democrats were not already a tough business, Lam is looking at the prospect of a more hostile pro-establishment camp.
Teflon coating wears thin
This is not the sweet spot she expected to be in 1½ years into her term. At a press conference on January 18, when she announced a new measure to pacify the pro-establishment camp and quell the backlash over the CSSA change, she chose a familiar backdrop, a blue banner that read: “We Care. We Listen. We Act.”
It was the slogan Lam adopted when she kicked off her election campaign two years ago.
“Choosing this as the background of our press conference today, I hope to reaffirm our commitment to the public again. The current administration pledged to serve the people of Hong Kong with a policy of ‘We Care. We Listen. We Act’,” Lam said.
Whether the ground will be suitably mollified remains to be seen. Lam, a career civil servant, became chief executive riding on a promise to heal a divided Hong Kong, after five years under her predecessor Leung Chun-ying. Lam, who was chief secretary in Leung’s government, pledged to mend the social rifts and put livelihood issues front and centre of her administration.
During her first year in office, she managed to maintain a fair public rating, emerging unscathed from several political battles including the jailing of student protesters and the disbarment of young aspirants from Legislative Council by-elections. She even shrugged off complaints from at home and abroad over the expulsion of foreign journalist Victor Mallet.
Her political standing had the coating of Teflon. No criticism stuck for long.
Then 2019 rolled around. Ironically, it is not the hard political issues that have tripped her up. Instead, Lam has in the past month been caught flat-footed over livelihood issues, ostensibly her strong suit given her long career in the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the civil service. A sociologist by training, she was once director of social welfare.
In rapid succession, several issues came to a head to knock Lam off her even keel of confidence, which some say hinted of arrogance.
The cumulative impact has been that the government’s popularity plunged to its lowest rating since she took office in July 2017. According to the latest poll by the University of Hong Kong, Lam scored 45.5 out of 100 – a significant drop from 50.9 two weeks ago. Her average score in her 19th month of office is 48.2, just one percentage point higher than her unpopular predecessor during the same period.
The CSSA controversy erupted rather unexpectedly on January 7 when officials announced that the eligibility age for elderly payments under the scheme would be raised from 60 to 65 from February 1, as per a plan passed in the budget nearly a year ago.
The details were in a press statement issued that evening. By the end of the following day, the public was seething.
Answering the media before her weekly cabinet meeting, an unperturbed Lam brushed aside questions, and made the now infamous remark about being a working woman above 60. She also coolly said the policy change was a decision of the previous administration, neglecting to add she was chief secretary then.
A day later, Lam said she was “shocked” at pro-establishment lawmaker Eunice Yung Hoi-yan’s question on whether she could withdraw the cuts, pointing out to the chamber that lawmakers themselves had approved the policy change in last year’s budget bill.
Lam’s response sparked anger from her traditional allies, who said it was unfair to suggest they had agreed with every single measure among the hundreds of items set out in the bill.
In her brusqueness, Lam ended up unifying lawmakers across the political divide as they passed a non-binding yet symbolic motion calling on the government to shelve the unpopular decision.
“Lam overestimated the capability of the cabinet and underestimated the public reaction towards the policy change,” said lawmaker Leung Che-cheung, from the largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
“As elected lawmakers, we know well that the elderly got very angry about the policy change. How could we side with the government?”
Leung Che-cheung insisted the camp raised its concerns during the 2017 policy address but the objections fell on deaf ears.
“The new governance style seems to be getting things done as long as Lam thinks they are correct,” he said, alluding to a growing perception of Lam as a high-handed leader uninterested in feedback.
They could be forgiven for thinking so as, after all, this was not the first time such a motion was passed. In November, lawmakers from both camps made their unhappiness clear at a Legco welfare panel meeting. They endorsed a similar motion moved by pan-democrat Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, urging the government to shelve the policy change.
Cheung accused Lam and her welfare minister Law Chi-kwong of being arrogant. “They only look into the issue from an economic standpoint. But they never bothered to consult the welfare sector and see why the elderly have difficulties in finding jobs,” he said.
Welfare sector lawmaker and pan-democrat Shiu Ka-chun said the government had a long tradition of being dismissive of Legco.
“Lam and her team have turned a blind eye to Legco, even to the pro-establishment camp. They don’t think Legco could mess things up given the motions are all non-binding,” Shiu said.
He believed what Lam had miscalculated was the public backlash, prompted in part by her move to be dismissive of criticism and Law’s blase comment on ageing.
Law, a former pan-democrat and a university professor, had said that “being 60 years old is just reaching mid-middle age when people can live to 120”.
A day after pro-establishment lawmakers joined forces with their opposition colleagues to rebuke her in Legco, Lam put up the backdrop and sought to show she was listening. She rolled out a new subsidy called Employment Support Supplement, offering HK$1,060 a month to new welfare applicants aged 60-64. It is the exact difference between the rates that adults and those over 65 will get under the changed policy.
Conceding there was room for improvement in the implementation process, Lam insisted she was not “backing down” or “yielding to pressure”.
She said the policy change first appeared in the 2015 Population Policy Report and was well grounded. The report was compiled following a public engagement exercise, which Lam chaired as chief secretary.
However, the government had to do another climbdown after 10 days when it said on Monday it would suspend a HK$200 penalty on recipients who were not actively seeking a job.
“Lam is overconfident and getting arrogant, probably because she had enjoyed a rather smooth start to her term,” said Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official think tank The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. “What is wrong is her attitude. It gives the public perception that she is losing sympathy and compassion.
“Elites of the civil service share the problem of being arrogant. Yes, the policies may be scientifically correct with good rationale and may do good for the long-term interest of Hong Kong. But are they politically correct or wise?”
Given the massive wealth gap in the city and contrasting that with its ample fiscal reserves, Lau said Lam should have been more flexible on welfare issues to avoid provoking public anger.
Taking its toll
But the CSSA issue was not the only major crisis for Lam. Four days after she held the press conference to set out remedial measures, the government made another U-turn on another policy. This time it was to shelve a plan to rationalise Hong Kong’s cross-harbour tunnel tolls.
The plan was to ease congestion by raising fees at the publicly operated Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel while lowering them for the privately run Western Harbour Tunnel, currently underused because of its higher charges.
Transport minister Frank Chan Fan said Lam had travelled to Beijing to bargain with the tunnel firm’s top management. However, the plan failed to convince major political parties, with many accusing the government of holding a “take it or leave it” attitude.
Chan and Lam had ruled out lowering the proposed tolls for the two tunnels, saying the current proposal was the best option presented by a government consultant.
Lawmakers bristled, again. “The government is overrelying on the consultant’s report. Are professionals ruling Hong Kong? That does not work in politics,” said the pro-Beijing Leung Che-cheung, also a national adviser to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
He said his party doubted the increase in the tolls – to HK$40, up from HK$20 and HK$25 for the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and Eastern Harbour Tunnel respectively – would encourage drivers to start using the western route, which would cost HK$50, or HK$20 less than the current charge.
“If the plan doesn’t work, we are the ones to be blamed by voters,” he said.
He revealed that his party asked the Chief Executive’s Office to consider other options such as bargaining with bus companies for a fare cut but the government refused to budge.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, of the Federation of Trade Unions, made this much clear: “With district council elections approaching at the end of this year and the Legco election coming next year, the chief executive has to be politically sensitive that issues could heat up easily.”
To add to the government’s woes, a messy bureaucratic system for recipients of a cash handout of HK$4,000 which led to complaints added to the public’s unhappiness. The handout was supposed to be a budget goody for those who owned neither property nor were on welfare, but the cumbersome forms prompted a flood of complaints. The government has since tried to simplify the procedures.
Wong said the government was insensitive to the burden it was placing on the public.
Urging Lam to be more politically astute and humble, he said: “What goes wrong is never a bad policy, but how it is packaged and promoted.”
Looking ahead, New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said Lam had made progress this week when she finally accepted all the criticisms.
“I think Lam has learned a lesson and will adjust her governance. She just has to listen more,” said Ip, a member of the Executive Council, Lam’s cabinet.
On Wednesday, Lam appeared more contrite. Citing a talk with an unnamed foreign leader while at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, she said: “Nowadays with technology ever faster, a leader of the government needs to stay humble and drop the mindset of elitism. I will bear those reminders in mind.”
Lau said Lam had made the right move, finally. He reminded Lam of a lesson from the days of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, under whom he worked as head of the Central Policy Unit. He said the turning point of Tsang’s popularity came when the public lost confidence in him after he appointed certain pro-Beijing personalities as vice-ministers and political assistants.
They had expected Tsang as the first career civil servant then in the top post to uphold political neutrality and fairness but were disappointed, he recalled.
“A widening social distance with the public would be the worst nightmare for a top leader,” Lau said.