Carrie Lam vowed to heal divisions and listen to the city’s youth when she became Hong Kong’s leader, promises that lie in tatters after tear gas and pepper spray sent them running for cover when they dared raise their voice.
The 62-year-old devout Catholic took over in March 2017 when a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists voted her into office — the first time a woman had been elevated to the international finance hub’s top job.
In her acceptance speech she vowed to be more responsive to the city’s youngsters, a restless demographic at the forefront of recent calls for greater democratic freedoms and measures to combat rising inequality.
“Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations,” she said in her acceptance speech. “My priority will be to heal the divide.”
Two years on and Hong Kong has been convulsed by its largest mass rally followed by the worst political violence in decades.
The spark that lit these flames was a push by Lam’s government to fast track a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China.
But the protests are also the latest explosion of an anger building for years over how the city is run by its pro-Beijing administrators.
When she took office, Lam was already loathed by the city’s pro-democracy camp because she had been deputy to her deeply unpopular predecessor, CY Leung, during the failed 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.
She was widely tipped as Beijing’s preferred candidate to replace him and easily saw off her rivals.
– Low ratings –
The rhetoric of Hong Kong’s political scene is often unforgiving and Lam has long faced unflattering — and often misogynistic — insults.
One of her nicknames — a pun on her family name — was “lai-ma” or wet nurse, a jibe over what her opponents said was a fawning loyalty towards her former boss Leung.
After her appointment, she was quickly dubbed “777” by detractors.
That nickname is a reference to the number of votes she secured in the 1,194 strong committee that chooses Hong Kong’s leader — but in Cantonese, the word for seven also sounds very close to a slang term for male genitalia.
But Lam has struggled with low approval ratings for much of her term.
The latest poll by the University of Hong Kong — taken before both this week’s violence and Sunday’s record anti-extradition march — showed her with an approval rating of 32 percent and a disapproval rate 57 percent.
None of her three post-handover predecessors had ratings that low two years into their tenures — although Leung had hit a lower point at 17 months.
– ‘Personal sacrifices’ –
Born into a low-income family, Lam stood out at her Catholic school and later attended the Cambridge University on government funding.
She began her career in the colonial civil service and rose up the ranks in the post-handover period, earning herself a reputation for being a fighter and a committed Beijing loyalist.
During the 2014 pro-democracy protests, she was often the face of the government, debating student leaders and insisting their demand to directly elect the city’s leader would not be met.
When she won the top job three years later she said she hoped to leave the political rancour of that period behind.
Lam is not known for showing emotion but in an interview filmed Wednesday morning, before the violence erupted, she broke down as she talked about the personal toll of being a leader.
“My love for this place has led me to make a number of sacrifices,” she said, tears welling up as she rejected suggestions she had “sold out” her city.
Later that evening — as battles between police and protesters continued — her office put out a new video statement and the steely resolve was back.
“It’s obvious that these are not peaceful rallies, but openly organised riots,” she said.