Coronavirus crisis: Why Beijing won’t fire Carrie Lam for botching the job again

South China Morning Post 發布於 02月21日00:02 • Albert Cheng
  • The central government recently shuffled officials related to Wuhan and Hong Kong but the axe is unlikely to fall on the chief executive. Beijing will find it hard to find a replacement who can rally enough support from a divided city
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announces on February 8 that travellers from the mainland will be quarantined for 14 days. Her government is so unpopular that it can do no right. Photo: DPA

On Monday, three knife-wielding robbers stole 600 toilet rolls from a delivery worker outside a supermarket in Mong Kok. The coronavirus outbreak has clearly driven some individuals to foolish behaviour, but it is the one behind the steering wheel " Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor " who is fully to blame. In the past eight months, Lam's administration has completely lost of the trust of Hongkongers. Caught in the "Tacitus Trap", the government is so unpopular that it can do no right.

The city is panicking due to a lack of transparency regarding medical supplies and daily necessities. Many are scrambling for essentials over fears that border restrictions to contain the coronavirus might choke off supplies.

With the outbreak, Lam had an opportunity to rectify the mistakes she made in pushing the notorious extradition bill last year, wreaking havoc in the city and endorsing the police's excessive use of force against protesters. Given the city's experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome, she was expected to handle the current crisis swiftly and regain the public's trust. However, she is once again failing.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, public distrust of the government has only deepened. Lam has stopped short of fully closing the border with the mainland, even as imported cases lead to a bunch of local infections. She has also failed to ensure adequate supplies of masks and hand sanitisers for both the general public and medical staff.

So far, the governments of Macau, Taiwan and Singapore have all done better jobs than that of Hong Kong.

On top of her poor response to the current crisis, Lam has repeatedly criticised the frontline medical workers who went on strike to urge the government to close the border. Already, those who joined the strike might face punishment. Worse, might Lam's administration be getting revenge on them by holding up supplies of protective equipment and creating an alarming shortage in wards?

In the meantime, it has been reported that police officers have been allocated more protective supplies than medical workers, even though they are just supporting the operations of quarantine centres. Some officers have been seen in full protective gear in the streets doing nothing much. Such perceived unfairness would only stir up more hatred of the police force and the government.

Coronavirus was no black swan. We just weren't ready for a crisis

Recently, the central government has been shuffling officials to improve political stability. Leaders in Hubei, the province at the centre of the epidemic, and its capital Wuhan, have been sent packing.

In Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office, has been removed. Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, has been demoted. Many people expect Lam to be next.

However, Beijing might still want to keep Lam in office. If Lam goes, Hong Kong will need a new chief executive. But Beijing's next preferred candidate might not be able to win the vote under the current circumstances.

In 2017, Lam received 777 votes from the Election Committee, just 88 more than Leung Chun-ying's 689 votes in 2012. These 88 voters were mainly business figures who had initially supported John Tsang Chun-wah, before changing their minds under Beijing's orders.

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But in the light of the social unrest and the coronavirus crisis, both of which have hurt businesses, it is questionable whether these 88 people will follow Beijing's instructions this time. Also, Beijing can expect to lose the 117 votes controlled by the district councils, following pro-democrats' victory in the district council elections.

Without these blocs, Beijing's favoured candidate might manage to secure only 572 votes " not even half the votes. Therefore, it makes more sense to keep Lam for now.

Another way out is to ask her to step down, and appoint her deputy, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, to take over till the latest crisis dies down. This could contain the anger towards Beijing and give it more time to lobby support for the next chief executive.

Still, the big question is: is there a widely acceptable candidate who is capable and also willing to take up the job?

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator

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