Hong Kong’s beleaguered leader has declared she now holds great confidence in the relationship between the government and legislature following a Beijing ruling which resulted in the mass resignation of local opposition lawmakers.
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Thursday also revealed that she would not have forged ahead with scrapping double stamp duty on commercial property purchases in her policy address a day earlier if the pan-democrats still held their seats.
In what Lam called the “return of peace”, her high-profile annual speech on Wednesday to the Legislative Council and the following day’s question and answer session was free of the protests and heckling that had punctuated previous ones.
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“My confidence in the relationship between the executive branch and the legislature has resumed, at least for now with the new legal framework,” Lam told a radio show on Thursday, referring to Beijing’s resolution on lawmaker conduct passed earlier in the month.
“I am more willing to go to Legco from now on to communicate with lawmakers.”
China’s top legislative body endorsed a resolution on November 11 making it easier for the local authorities to remove lawmakers deemed to have engaged in a range of acts such as endangering national security and dishonouring their pledge of allegiance.
It led to the immediate unseating of four opposition legislators, which in turn triggered 15 colleagues to quit in protest.
Lam later on Thursday took questions from a dozen pro-establishment lawmakers at the legislature, following up on the policy address and mainly focusing on the Covid-19 pandemic and housing.
In her opening remarks at that session, Lam said: “I am very confident today because I am facing a rational and pragmatic Legco.
“I reiterated that the executive and legislative bodies must perform their own duties – to check and balance and cooperate.”
While she encountered snippets of criticism during questioning from some pro-establishment lawmakers at Thursday’s 1½-hour session, the proceedings had none of the hostility of previous years, when there were outbursts of barracking and even full-blown protests from the opposition.
A few accused her administration’s annual policy blueprint of lacking short-term relief measures to deal with most pressing issues in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the lawmakers generally prefaced their inquiries by referring to Lam’s proposals as “visionary” and “comprehensive”. One even called her “superwoman”.
Wearing a floral qipao and grey blazer, the chief executive entered the chamber without interruption, just as she did a day earlier for the policy address.
Occasionally flashing a smile at the lectern, she declared: “I am happy to come to the Legislative Council more.”
“The return of peace in Legco has helped us greatly,” she said, adding that proceedings in the presence of opposition lawmakers had been dogged by filibustering.
“Not only my colleagues have more time to focus on different policies, I would say, if I am not facing such a Legco like the current one, the abolition of commercial property tax would not appear in my policy address.”
For the policy to take effect immediately, the government has to issue an interim order. But if the accompanying legislation cannot pass Legco within four months of that order being made, officials must re-establish the system for collecting the duties until the bill finally clears the legislature.
“Today, we are confident,” she said, on the basis there was no opposition bloc to deploy delaying tactics in the chamber.
Lam revealed to lawmakers her intention to resume a monthly 30-minute question and answer session previously suspended due to the deterioration of her relationship with opposition members.
The chief executive also said she would not shy away from confrontation, such as taking on doctors accused by the pro-establishment camp of causing shortages of medical staff through their protectionism.
Leaping on a lawmaker’s question about doctor shortages, Lam vowed to press ahead with bringing overseas physicians to the city, despite expecting condemnation from the Medical Council for doing so.
“This is a war we must fight. But whether it can be a peaceful one without smoke from firearms will depend on our colleagues from the medical sector,” Lam said.
She explained that the sight of kindergarten-age children with learning difficulties not being assessed for treatment because of a lack of paediatricians had fuelled her urge to reform the system.
The government aims to attract Hong Kong-born doctors who train and practise overseas, or those whose parents are from the city.
However, it was not all plain-sailing for Lam, with many pro-establishment lawmakers concerned about whether the administration had done enough to curtail the health crisis, as the progress of this was key to reopening borders with mainland China.
Roundtable lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun urged Lam to adopt Covid-19 testing methods with higher accuracy levels and impose more rigorous measures on incoming travellers.
Tien also said he was not in the chamber to “harm her”, after he mentioned a day ago that it was clear Lam’s policy address was being used as a platform to promote her 2022 re-election bid.
“I do not have such intention”, she said on her motivation for the policy address.
Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, lawmaker for the commercial sector, offered his full support to Lam.
“You are better than a superwoman, chief executive, being so combative. We support you,” he said.
But he also expressed concern that Lam would struggle with the weight of the workload and proposed streamlining the government’s system to give her better oversight.
Lam’s appearances this week before an opposition-free legislature followed Beijing’s resolution earlier this month to disqualify four lawmakers – the Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngor-kiu, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, and Professional Guilds’ Kenneth Leung – for unpatriotic conduct.
That decision led to the resignation of the remaining 15 opposition lawmakers, leaving Lam able to deliver her longest of the four speeches she has given since taking the helm in 2017, without interruption or protest.
She touched on a range of issues, from constitutional order to housing and closer integration with the mainland during a policy address lasting 2½ hours.
Abraham Razack, a lawmaker representing the real estate and the construction industries, told Lam that despite the vocal disdain from a few, most of society supported her.
“Whether the public likes me or not has never been the basis of my policymaking. It’s all about implementing ‘one country, two systems’ and in the interest of the public,” Lam replied, referring to governing principle through which Beijing promises Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.
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