New Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday and vowed to improve ties with the legislature, but she suggested fresh reforms to bring greater democracy to the Chinese city would not be tabled any time soon.
The former British colony celebrated the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on Saturday, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the city and warned that it should crack down on moves towards “Hong Kong independence”.
In 2014, Lam spearheaded government efforts to push through a contentious, Beijing-backed political reform package that would have allowed a direct vote for the city’s next leader. However, China’s demand that all candidates first be pre-screened by a largely pro-Beijing committee partly helped to trigger the 79-day “Occupy” pro-democracy civil disobedience movement later that year.
The political reform package was eventually vetoed in 2015 by opposition lawmakers who described it as “fake democracy”.
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees wide-ranging autonomy and universal suffrage as an “ultimate aim”, but Lam played down the prospects of fresh political reforms being revived any time soon.
Beijing officials have also suggested Hong Kong won’t be given a second chance for democratic reforms. “Political reform has always been very sensitive, very complicated and very difficult,” Lam told lawmakers.
“If I … restart political reform immediately, such that the society becomes embroiled in serious conflicts again and the economy and livelihood issues come to a standstill, then as the person with the utmost responsibility, I would have failed,” she said.
Lam, in her first week in office, spent about an hour answering lawmakers’ questions in a specially arranged meeting, where the mood appeared less hostile compared with sessions involving her predecessor, the unpopular Leung Chun-ying.
She stressed her desire to improve the executive’s relations with the legislature. “I like coming to the Legislative Council. I don’t say this to flatter anyone. It’s because this is a place to discuss policies and to do work for the people,” Lam said.
“In the past few years we saw conflict and fights, with people pulling out their swords and bows. This made me a bit sad,” she said.
Lam also said she would bring forward her maiden policy address to October from January, with land and housing, education and the economy her priorities.