Hong Kong’s new leader Carrie Lam pledged Sunday to mend political rifts after winning a vote dismissed as a sham by democracy activists who fear the loss of the city’s cherished freedoms.
The former career civil servant was chosen as next chief executive of the semi-autonomous city by a mainly pro-China committee. She was widely seen as Beijing’s favourite candidate.
Her main rival, ex-finance chief John Tsang who was perceived as a more moderate pro-establishment figure, had a clear lead in opinion polls but trailed in the result.
It was the first leadership vote since mass “Umbrella Movement” rallies in 2014 calling for fully free elections failed to secure reforms.
Pro-democracy activists said none of the candidates truly represented Hong Kong and rejected the vote outright.
Hong Kong was handed back to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula designed to protect its freedoms and way of life.
But 20 years on, there are serious concerns Beijing is undermining the agreement.
Critics say Lam will deepen divisions but she insisted she wants to unify politically polarised Hong Kong.
“My priority will be to heal the divide,” she said.
Lam pledged to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy and protect its core values, including freedom of expression and an independent judiciary.
Asked how she would address concerns Beijing is tightening its grip, she said there was “no difference” between the Hong Kong government and Chinese authorities’ views on safeguarding the city’s status and liberties.
Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office welcomed Lam’s win in a statement which said she “was trusted by the central government”.
– Frustrated activists –
Lam is intensely disliked by the pro-democracy camp after promoting the Beijing-backed political reform package that sparked the protests of 2014.
It would have allowed the public to vote for the city’s leader in 2017, but would have insisted candidates were vetted first.
Despite huge numbers the rallies failed to win concessions and the package was voted down in the legislature by pro-democracy lawmakers in 2015.
Political reform has been shelved ever since.
Critics also see Lam as loyal to current unpopular chief executive Leung Chun-ying, viewed by opponents as a Beijing puppet.
He will step down in July after five years in charge. Lam, 59, who will be the city’s first woman leader, was formerly his deputy.
She won comprehensively with 777 votes against 365 for Tsang. The third and most liberal candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, received just 21 votes.
Around three quarters of the 1,194 members of the election committee were from the pro-China camp.
Tsang likened his defeat to waking up from a dream, but said there was no evidence Beijing had influenced the result.
Since the failure of the 2014 protests, some activists have called for self-determination for Hong Kong or even independence.
But the pro-democracy movement as a whole has splintered and lost momentum.
Political party Demosisto, led by high-profile activist Joshua Wong and young legislator Nathan Law, called Sunday’s result “a nightmare to Hongkongers”.
They said they would plan large-scale civil disobedience to coincide with Lam’s inauguration on July 1, when China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to visit for the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Pro-China and democracy protesters faced off outside the voting venue, with some activists later throwing toilet paper over the walls of China’s liaison office.
– Uphill struggle –
Analysts said Lam’s definitive win showed public opinion was not a major factor for Beijing.
“Loyalty trumps everything else,” said Willy Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He said the new government and Beijing would want to steer clear of the “hot potato” of political reform for fear of igniting further conflict.
Lam has said she wants to focus instead on social issues, including housing.
But she will face an uphill struggle to unite a city in which young people in particular have lost faith in the political system and their own prospects.
With salaries too low to meet the cost of property in an overpriced market fuelled by mainland money, getting ahead in life is increasingly difficult.
Concerns of Beijing’s interference have been heightened by the disappearance in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers, who resurfaced in detention on the mainland.