Can a ‘Very Confident’ Carrie Lam Salvage Her Legacy in Hong Kong?

HONG KONG — The students sat quietly as soldiers goose-stepped into the Hong Kong high school’s auditorium, hoisting a Chinese flag. The M.C.s spoke in Mandarin, the language of mainland China, rather than Cantonese, the city’s predominant language. Then Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, took the podium, to extol the importance of patriotism in the city’s youth.

It was Mrs. Lam’s fourth visit to a school in recent weeks — a striking count for a leader who for two years had barely set foot on a campus. When anti-government protests engulfed the city in 2019, young people were among the most devoted participants, with high schoolers boycotting classes and forming human chains.

But now, as the scene this month at the school, Pui Kiu, made clear, things had changed: The pro-China side — and by extension, Mrs. Lam — was back in charge. While a Hong Kong cliché long held that the chief executive serves two masters, Beijing and the Hong Kong people, the 2019 protests and the ensuing crisis crystallized that only one really mattered.

With that clarity, Mrs. Lam, 64, lately seems to be a woman reinvigorated, nothing like the leader who, at the height of the protests, disappeared from view for days on end.

She has laid out an ambitious vision to “completely solve” Hong Kong’s housing issue, by building more than 900,000 units in the city’s largely undeveloped northern outskirts. She visited the city of Wuhan this month to strengthen Hong Kong’s economic and cultural ties with the mainland. She has given lengthy media interviews, smilingly dismissing concerns that the city is being crushed by Beijing.

“I am very confident about Hong Kong,” she said at an awards ceremony last month. “I hope I were 30 years younger, so I could start to contribute to Hong Kong and benefit from a much better Hong Kong for a longer period of time.”

Mrs. Lam has dodged questions about whether she will seek to serve a second term in March, and her office declined to make her available for an interview. But observers say her demeanor points to a woman trying for five more years in power.

The draw is obvious. If she leaves office now, she will be remembered as the most unpopular chief executive in Hong Kong history, whose fumbling response to a popular uprising ushered in a drastic rollback of the city’s civil liberties by Beijing, a nosedive for Hong Kong’s global stature and an exodus of residents. Few in even the pro-Beijing camp are willing to defend her.

But if Beijing allows her another term, she could try to rehabilitate her legacy, by tackling Hong Kong’s housing shortage, an issue that has stymied every leader before her, and accelerating integration with the mainland, which some argue would lift the city’s economy. No previous chief executive has completed two terms — surely an enticing challenge for Mrs. Lam, a self-avowed perfectionist.

Even Mrs. Lam’s critics acknowledge that she is a ferociously competent administrator who may well be able to push through the housing and employment policies she has outlined. Perhaps more important, Beijing’s political purge has wiped out almost all opposition. On Sunday, Hong Kong will hold its first legislative elections since Beijing remade the system this spring to allow only government-approved candidates to run.

More in doubt is Mrs. Lam’s ability to convince Hong Kongers that Beijing’s vision is indeed better, and for whom. While Beijing asserts that economic gains will heal Hong Kong’s social rifts, and that closer ties with the mainland will foster natural patriotism, the pro-democracy camp insists that nothing will improve without a restoration of political rights.

That may be why, for all her rhetoric about the future, Mrs. Lam has also focused on recasting the past — in particular, what Beijing meant when it promised Hong Kong, a former British colony, semi-autonomy.

Mrs. Lam once championed the direct election of the chief executive. (Currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive is selected by a committee of 1,500, in a vote overseen by Beijing.) Last month, she said it was “wrong” to think that Beijing “owes” Hong Kongers universal suffrage, even though it is laid out as a goal in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Mrs. Lam’s transformation was a “big irony,” said Jasper Tsang, a founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party. “Following the protests in 2019, her job now is to try to wipe out what we all believed before — including herself.”

For most of Mrs. Lam’s career, she advertised herself as a more moderate figure, committed to Beijing but open to compromise.

She rose to the top job in 2017 to succeed Leung Chun-ying, a Beijing loyalist whose hard line on pro-democracy protests in 2014 made him deeply unpopular. Mrs. Lam presented herself instead as an efficient workhorse — more administrator than politician. She spoke of her time as head prefect at her Catholic all-girls’ high school, where she cried on the rare instance she did not place top of her class. Her official biography listed all 20 government positions she held before becoming chief executive.

She also leaned into her reputation as a negotiator who had led the government’s talks with student leaders during the 2014 protests. She seemed comfortable with Hong Kong’s traditionally close relationship with the West, once speaking of wanting to retire with her husband and two sons in Britain.

One of her earliest acts as chief executive was to appoint former opposition leaders to her cabinet. In March 2018, she attended a Democratic Party fund-raiser and donated nearly $4,000 — the first time a chief executive had publicly given to an opposition party.

“At the beginning, she did try to be more of a unifying figure,” said Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker. “All parties were really trying their best to heal the division of society.”

Mrs. Lam never expected the fury of the backlash to her proposal in 2019 to allow extraditions to mainland China. Public demonstrations, which began in response to the bill, ballooned into monthslong condemnations of Beijing writ large.

If Mrs. Lam in the beginning of her tenure had seemed to thread the impossibility of serving two masters, that proved unsustainable. In June 2020, the central government, having lost patience with the Hong Kong government’s response, bypassed Mrs. Lam’s administration to impose a sweeping security law.

In the following months, dozens of opposition leaders were arrested, a pro-democracy newspaper was forced to close and the United States government imposed sanctions on Mrs. Lam.

Yet Beijing’s intervention would prove a lifeline for her. No longer was there any question of whether the chief executive answered to Beijing or the Hong Kong people. Now, Mrs. Lam just had to play along.

“There are all sorts of ironies in life,” she said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post about the protests. “You thought that was the end of the world, and suddenly it’s not. It was the beginning of a bright future.”

Mrs. Lam’s rhetoric now mirrors that of the Chinese Communist Party, with its mix of strident denunciations and bureaucratic jargon. At news conferences, she sniffs at the West’s “so-called democracy.” In her annual policy address this year, she singled out the Communist Party’s authority over Hong Kong affairs, unlike earlier addresses in which she did not mention the party.

Charles Ho, a pro-Beijing tycoon who has criticized Mrs. Lam’s handling of the protests, said she would have been fired or demoted if she were a mainland official. But after the security law, Mrs. Lam worked hard to earn back Beijing’s good will, he said.

“Whenever she makes speeches, she is thanking the central government or mentioning Xi,” Mr. Ho said, referring to Xi Jinping, China’s leader. “She learned to please.”

Future debates about Mrs. Lam’s legacy will turn in part on the question of how much choice she had in her fate. Was she a willing servant to the party’s quest to crush Hong Kong’s freedoms? Or was she doing the best she could in the face of Beijing’s authoritarianism?

Either way, Mrs. Lam appears to relish the new state of affairs. In July, for example, when retreating from a campaign promise to extend anti-bribery regulations to cover the chief executive, she explained that the leader’s accountability was to Beijing.

“She is, sort of, above the executive, the legislature and the judiciary,” she said.

Mrs. Lam has been liberated by her full embrace of Beijing, said Allan Zeman, a real estate developer and adviser to Mrs. Lam. “You can’t please everyone,” he said. “She has her priorities straight now.”

Nowhere has her confidence been clearer than in her proposal to build a “Northern Metropolis” across the border from the Chinese city of Shenzhen, replacing what is currently a patchwork of towns and industrial areas with a high-tech hub that would house 2.5 million people. In Mrs. Lam’s telling, the project would ease the housing crunch and bind the city to the mainland all in one.

Similar proposals have stalled for years because of opposition from villagers and environmentalists. But Mrs. Lam said that was no longer a problem, because the security law had restored “social order.”

Her pitch might work. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers, often seen as bellwethers of the central authorities’ opinion, have published editorials praising Mrs. Lam’s recent speeches. No other chief executive candidates have stepped forward, perhaps signaling approval from Beijing, said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong political scholar.

“There are many people willing to bend over backward to please Beijing,” he said. But Mrs. Lam “has a credible track record in using the civil service to attain specific goals mandated by Beijing.”

Indeed, Mrs. Lam seems to have been increasingly relegated to anticipating — or racing to keep up with — the central government’s demands.

In the fall, officials from the Central Liaison Office, Beijing’s arm in Hong Kong, fanned out across the city to visit thousands of low-income residents, in a highly publicized show of sympathy for their living conditions. Mrs. Lam appeared caught off guard: She acknowledged to reporters that she “did not realize” the scale of their outreach until she read about it in the newspaper.

A week after those visits, Mrs. Lam descended on several low-income households herself.

Mrs. Lam, for all her new bravura, seems aware of how tenuous her apparent political resurrection is. Her recent public appearances have been tightly scripted. In August, she held her first town hall in two years — with 90 of 106 attendees handpicked by the government.

Mrs. Lam’s visit to Pui Kiu this month was similarly controlled. The school is known to be pro-Beijing. After Mrs. Lam spoke, she presented plaques to donors, smiling with each for a few seconds. She presided over the opening of the school’s fitness room, posing for photos behind a row of stationary bikes.

She did not speak to any students. Then, she strode to a car nearby and disappeared inside.

Austin Ramzy and Joy Dong contributed reporting.