There is something remarkable and strange in the interviews with our Chief Executive-elect. Discerning the meaning of the contours of these peculiarities tells us something about the current political reality in Hong Kong and perhaps give us some clue to what her governing style might be. What is most striking is how someone who should command so much power and prestige seems absent of any free will or ideas of her own. Whereby rights she could be entering her new job in a position of strength, Lam instead signals in interview answers that she has no idea what policies her government will take up in the coming years because Lam has forfeited her powers before she has even been sworn in.
Lam tells her interviewer that she shares a desire for more democracy, but that it will not be on her agenda. Implicitly, we learn that her ideas and aspirations will not guide her policies and decisions, in part because her opinions have no little or no influence either in Beijing or the Liaison Office. Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive offers a window into her governance style that conjures images of a powerless boat being towed by the rope of some larger vessel. Carefully constructed soas to never find herself in disagreement with Beijing, her answers only tell us that any direction she is pulled is not only acceptable and fully compatible with One Country, Two Systems worthy of preemptive praise as wise and benevolent. It is natural to wonder if Lam is in some way also a hostage when she explains her administration’s official position that politically motivated kidnappings that abduct Hong Kong citizens across the border are a matter for China to resolve as it wishes.
Beneath the painfully forced smiles and doublespeak is a Cambridge graduate – a social science major no less – who one would assumes knows that her answers simultaneously make her look weak and throw up red flags. The public persona Carrie Lam displayed for the public in her ascent to Chief Executive is the purest expression of pro-establishment logic in Hong Kong. The bewildering logic driving her answers draws a parallel with no other contemporary political leader outside Hong Kong. We must instead turn to history to find parallels and a possible explanation. More analogous to the political elite that collaborated with the Japanese in the Second World War throughout Asia than anyone else. Because their motivations and beliefs can seem inscrutable, people are too quick to attribute malice in motive.
Philippine President Quezon retreated with MacArthur to Corregidor, leaving Jorge Vargas in Manila to face the impending capture of the capital city. As the Japanese approached Manila, Vargas contacted the American MacArthur had left behind to fight, Claude Buss, to ask whether they should begin to mount an insurgency. Buss advised the exact opposite, to collaborate with the Japanese. He counseled Vargas to surrender, to “use (his) head and do nothing to bring retribution to the people.” Days later, Vargas took to the radio to ask the Philippine people to resume normal life and refrain from doing anything that would be “inimical to the interests” of the Japanese invaders.
A year before Vargas and the Philippine elite chose to collaborate with the Japanese, a Kuomintang co-founder who had been close to Sun Yat-sen made a circuitous route out of the territory Chiang Kai-shek still ruled through Vietnam to enter Japanese-occupied China to preside over the collaborationist government. For Wang Jingwei, the Japanese occupation was an enduring – if not permanent – political reality that needed to be adapted to. Against this backdrop, the KMT’s continued armed resistance was not only futile but disastrous for the Chinese people. To continue fighting a hopeless war, in Wang’s view, was to instigate the continued destruction of the nation; the peace in Wang’s surrendered Nanjing morally superior to inciting the firebombing of Chiang’s Chongqing.
Twenty years ago this week, Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China peacefully. The new owners of the city promised to govern with a light touch, knowing that a century and half of separation made them and their political and economic system nearly as alien to Hong Kong as the what the Japanese brought to the Philippines by force of arms. Hong Kong was not ‘returned’ but recolonized. The polarized society our new Chief Executive will govern is divided less by ideology, but starkly different assessments about whether it in the best interests of Hong Kong resist the encroachments of Beijing or surrender to them.
There is scant evidence that Lam has any particular ideological affinity for the Party, nor does she evidences the type of raw ambition that would lead her to see the Party as a platform to advance a crass opportunism. A crucial difference between Lam and her predecessors is that she has chosen surrender more selflessly than her far more craven and opportunistic predecessor, whose business entanglements Beijing could leverage. Running against a far more popular opponent, Lam’s appointment as Chief Executive by a stacked Election Commission is notable only for the personal embarrassment of being the most farcical and rigged ‘election’ to date. She must also know the inevitability of becoming and an object of scorn, humiliation, protest, and mockery like her predecessors.
It is remarkable, then, that she offers herself as the lightning rod for the contentious politics to come, a leader willing to make deeply unpopular decisions and carry them through. One comes away thinking that she views this as a necessary sacrifice because, ideally, she would have retired in the United Kingdom with her husband five years ago. Leading people who did not want her, she arrives to deliver the same message Vargas did: ‘carry on as usual and ignore any disruptions and inconveniences created; everything will be all right so long as we do nothing to draw their wrath and are all made suffer.’
One can empathize with the terror Vargas felt as MacArthur fled and his army retreated into the mountains of Bataan, leaving a suicidal resistance or surrender as the only viable options. It is understandable how Wang could come to firmly believe that total Japanese victory was an inevitability slowed only by the blood of Chinese civilians and conscripts Chiang put in their way. It is harder to explain or understand Lam’s decision to chart an anachronistic course that so closely matches the collaborators of the 1940s.
One wonders if something Lam witnessed behind the closed doors of the Liaison Office convinced her that only complete surrender might forestall an even greater tragedy. Does she know more than we do? Perhaps Beijing would not hesitate to suspend the Basic Law, and that passing Article 23 is in her mind the only way to avoid it? Does she know what the original plan was on the first night of the Umbrella Movement when the automatic rifles came out? Does she fear protests getting out of hand because the PLA is itching to come out of their barracks next time? We will likely never know, as she will probably never fully explain why she believes surrender is Hong Kong’s only hope.