Who is Carrie Lam? What you need to know about Hong Kong's leader

As Hong Kong enters its third month of mass demonstrations, the financial hub’s embattled leader, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has been thrust into the international spotlight. Who is Lam, and why are protesters calling for her resignation?

A career in civil service

Carrie Lam was born in Hong Kong in 1957. One of five children, she was raised as a Catholic.

Lam attended the University of Hong Kong and graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences. She joined the civil service in 1980, and in 1981 was sent to the University of Cambridge in the UK to undertake a year-long diploma course in Development Studies.

At Cambridge, she met her mathematician husband, with whom she would have two sons. Her husband and one son live in the UK, and the other son lives in mainland China.

In 2004, Lam was appointed Director-General of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in London. She returned to Hong Kong in 2006, taking up the position as Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs. In 2007, she left the civil service after being appointed the Secretary for Development, making her a principal official in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.

Lam continued to rise through the government ranks, and in 2012 was appointed Chief Secretary for Administration, the most senior rank of principal officials. As Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's deputy, she led the government’s negotiation team that met with student leaders of 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.

In 2017, Lam was elected Chief Executive, becoming the first woman in the territory’s top job.

How Hong Kong chooses its Chief Executive

The Chief Executive is Hong Kong’s top political post under the “one country, two systems” framework. They are the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s representative and the head of the Government of Hong Kong. The office came into being with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China and is provided for in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The Chief Executive serves for five years with a maximum of two terms.  

Most of Hong Kong’s more than four million voters don’t get to vote for the Chief Executive. The Election Committee is comprised of just 1,200 members from a mix of people in the professional, business and trade, social services, labour, and legislative sectors. Critics of the committee say that it is over-represented by pro-Beijing individuals.

The Basic Law included language that indicated the chief executive would eventually be elected by universal suffrage – this was supposed to happen by the 2017 election. But proposed reforms in 2014 that would have led to universal suffrage also required a process in which only candidates pre-vetted by Beijing would be allowed to run for the office. The decision fuelled protests by pro-democracy activists that resulted in the Umbrella Movement. Lawmakers voted against the proposed reforms, retaining the existing selection process for the 2017 election.

During the 2017 election, Lam was widely seen as Beijing’s pick for Chief Executive but did not lead in public opinion polls. However, she won the election with 777 votes. 

Life under Lam

Lam’s tenure has been marked by key decisions against members of the Legislative Council associated with the pro-democracy movement. In 2017, her government requested the removal of four pro-democracy members in response to political statements made during their 2016 swearing-in ceremonies. In 2018, another political candidate was disqualified for his past advocacy for self-determination. That same year, the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party was also banned on national security grounds.

Lam’s government proposed the extradition bill that sparked the current protests in February, after a high-profile case in which a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan could not be extradited as there was no agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Existing laws exclude extradition to “any other part of the People’s Republic of China", which in Hong Kong is seen to include Taiwan. The law immediately drew criticism, in part because it would allow extradition requests from mainland China. Some business groups also said it would reduce Hong Kong’s international competitiveness, given the law would apply to visitors to the island. Taiwan said it would not sign the deal given the implications for Taiwan’s status vis-à-vis China, making it impossible for the law to address the original case.

Lam continued to press for the bill’s passage through April and May despite mounting opposition. As citywide protests grew through mid-June, she eventually apologised to the public and suspended the bill. However, she also continued to infuriate protesters when she compared them to children who should not be acquiesced to.

Although the protests began in response to the extradition bill, the demands of the protesters have evolved. They are now calling for the complete withdrawal of the bill, the resignation of Carrie Lam, amnesty for arrested protesters, retraction of references to the June 12 protest as a “riot”, and an independent inquiry into police handling of the events. Lam has so far refused to withdraw the bill or step down. Beijing has maintained its public support for Lam.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre