Explainer: RTHK’s Hour Long Backchat with Chief Executive Carrie Lam

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Screenshot via RTHK’s Backchat

Chief Executive Carrie Lam engages in heated conversation on reactions to Beijing-imposed legislation, foreign impressions of her administration, broken campaign promises and more, in a special interview on RTHK’s Backchat, hosted by Hugh Chiverton and Karen Koh.

You’re reading HT’s explainer for all you need to know on the hour-long discussion

The anti-Chinese narrative and National Security Law

Host Karen Koh opened by summarising foreign reactions to the legislation—enacted just over a year ago—as overwhelmingly negative, including US President Joe Biden’s apprehension on resuming business in the region. Although Lam admits the move has damaged Hong Kong’s international reputation, she rebukes “sweeping statements” from Western countries regarding the national security law’s erosion of freedoms. 

Having been Chief Executive of Hong Kong for four years, Lam noticed a distasteful lens against Beijing—a bias through which foreigners and a minority of Hongkongers judged China’s actions as equivalent to a crackdown on civil liberties. Still, Lam invites the interviewers to identify the harmful aspects of these impositions, pointing to the city’s booming economic, technological and cultural sectors. 

“I would honestly ask you, what sort of freedoms have we lost? What sort of vibrancy has Hong Kong been eroded?”

She credits the central authorities for restoring order in Hong Kong through “the implementation of a National Security Law and improvements in the electoral system”. Political stability allows the Legislative Council (LegCo) to design policies focused on economic stimulation, says Lam.

As for freedom of expression, the Chief Executive says the law does not prohibit citizens from criticising the administration or the her position; it simply targets those who condone violence, terrorism, or hateful behaviour that would mislead others into becoming “anti-patriotic”. She argues that Hong Kong exercises considerable restraint compared to “so-called Western democracies” whose equivalent laws are much stricter. Lam thus condemns external denunciations of local politics as hypocritical and intending to paint an antagonistic image of China. 

Host Chiverton asked for proof of Hong Kong being used as a “platform” to harbour anti-Chinese sentiment, but Lam dismissed that this was not the occasion to discuss evidence. 

“We have judicial proceedings,” she said. 

COVID-19 and Hong Kong’s economic future

Chiverton and Koh questioned Lam’s confidence in Hong Kong’s economic prosperity, referencing high unemployment rate, small businesses suffering during the pandemic and failed government loan plans. Lam remained optimistic that the city’s markets would display resilience as the coronavirus situation improves, and commended Hongkongers for largely abiding by COVID-19 measures. 

“I have to pay tribute to the Hong Kong people, both in terms of adopting the public health standards […] and the very strong fundamentals that Hong Kong has,” she said. “That means we have this readiness to bounce back.”

Lam believes local industries will flourish with the central government’s investments in finance, trade, transportation and legal services, and recently in arts and technology. 

“Hopefully, it will drive various sectors in society to align their strategy to develop Hong Kong’s economy.”

Political tensions and the 2019 anti-extradition protests

The CE contends that the 2019 demonstrations were not solely fueled by outrage over the controversial extradition bill. Rather, tensions had been boiling ever since “reunification” of 1997, as exhibited by civilian uprisings from the early 2000s onwards, including the 2014 Occupy movement. 

Chiverton highlighted an issue of mistrust between the public and government. In response, Lam acknowledged a need for official engagement with wider demographics—for instance, participating in English-language programs—but emphasised that trust is a two-way street. 

“I’m sorry to say that outside, there is a campaign or movement to undermine the trust in the government and we have seen too much of that.”

She also expressed safety concerns given the rise of “lone wolf terrorists”, referring to the man who stabbed a police officer on 1 July in Causeway Bay. The man stabbed himself after the event and died in hospital. 

Additionally, Lam reiterated her support for the authorities, suggesting that rioters and their sympathisers owe the police an apology. 

Koh replied that protestors grew frustrated due to insufficient channels for communication with the administration; rather than instigating a dialogue about Hongkongers’ grievances, the force served as a “policing response to a political problem”. 

Lam warned that Koh was “treading on very dangerous lines”. She described the demonstrations as security risks and claimed that any form of dissatisfaction with the current society could not justify violence. 

“One country, Two systems” and Cultural Clashes

When asked about the wave of Mainland-imposed changes popularly dubbed the “second Handover”, Lam applauded the government’s promotion of national identity through social elements such as education. 

“We are moving into a new era, accurately and comprehensively implementing “one country, two systems,”” she asserts. “As a result of that, we need to review a lot of systems, practices, policies to ensure they are aligned with this new era”.

Lam stresses that this constitutional principle is rooted in the fundamental concept of “one country”, which encompasses collective security, identity and education. She nonetheless maintains that all rights and freedoms afforded by the Basic Law are upheld by Article 4 of the National Security Law, and envisions a “bright and good” future that supports the freedoms of the older era.

Koh recalls the historical memory of Hong Kong residents immigrating from China—escaping violent events like the Cultural Revolution—to explain the cultural disconnect between Hongkongers and the Chinese identity. 

“It’s nothing to do with not loving China […] they identify as Chinese culturally, but there’s a difference between loving Hong Kong and loving the Mainland in the eyes of the Hong Kong people.” 

Lam said she would not assume that all families who fled the Mainland are unpatriotic, and would not infer the same about the city’s current emigrants. 

Enforcing accountability

Lam recently backtracked on a 2017 election promise to ensure the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance would apply to her post, citing national security risks and undermining the role’s constitutional status. While Chief Executives would still be punished for serious offences, they would not be subject to evaluations of integrity, which she deems as minor.

She justifies this reversal by confessing that her former understanding of the position was flawed as she neglected to consider its constitutional significance with regards relationship to the Central Government. Although Chiverton noted that concrete efforts to develop the anti-corruption policy transparently and effectively would foster faith in the administration, Lam refused to act in concern of mere “popularity”.

Lam also challenged the “integrity and morality of some of the media”, referring to a leaked conversation where she said herself to have caused “unforgiveable havoc” by introducing the extradition bill, triggering mass protests in 2019. 

Lam argued that the media should not report on closed-door meetings regardless of her status as a public figure. The hosts commented that such reportage was not illegal, to which Lam responded that “perhaps a law [protecting private interactions] needs to be introduced”. 

“Or you get new friends”, Chiverton added. 

RTHK lastly mentioned the district council election in which the voting public seemed predominantly sympathetic towards the anti-government protestors. Lam did not provide an official stance, but underscored that under the new legislation, all members must take an oath declaring their loyalty to the People’s Republic of China.