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Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam: ‘The nanny’ turned ‘Beijing puppet’

Up until Carrie Lam championed a Beijing-tainted bill, Hong Kong’s chief executive labelled herself a protector of the “one country, two systems” principle. But pro-democracy protesters say the bill proves she is nothing but a “Beijing puppet”.

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“There’s no convenor in this movement – the only convenor is Carrie Lam. We are all here because of Carrie Lamand only Lam can dismiss the crowd by shelving the bill,” Jimmy Sham, one of the pro-democracy protest leaders said on Wednesday as tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of Hong Kong to show their opposition to the bill.

The bill, which will allow for the extradition of Hong Kong criminal suspects to stand trial abroad – and, in particular, China – has resulted in the worst political unrest in the semi-autonomous territory since Britain handed it back to China in 1997. While Lam insists the extradition law is a necessary evil to plug legal loopholes and to prevent the city from becoming a sanctuary for criminals on the run, critics say it opens up a whole avenue of opportunities for the Chinese Communist Party to have its way with anyone in Hong Kong it may find “uncomfortable”.

Ever since Lam was elected to her seat in 2017, fears have amplified that the 62-year-old leader will aid Beijing in tightening its control over the city, effectively undermining the "one country, two systems" framework that guarantees Hong Kong its high degree of autonomy, including an independent justice system. The fears of the mainland have been fuelled by several Beijing-tainted cases in recent years, including the clandestine detention of five Hong Kong booksellers on the mainland and the suspected abduction of a Chinese tycoon in Hong Kong by mainland agents.

Lam, meanwhile, insists she has “not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing” to pass the controversial bill that is now on the table, but has warned against “radical actions”. She has clearly stated that she intends to stand by the bill.

On Wednesday, as the bill was due up for debate, pro-democracy supporters surrounded the city’s legislature to denounce “Beijing’s puppet”, forcing through a delay of Lam’s ambitions to fast-track the bill process.

The nanny, the fighter and the puppet

Prior to her 2017 election, Lam went under a triad of nicknames: the nanny, the fighter and the puppet.

Born into a modest family of five children in the crowded Hong Kong district of Wanchai, Lam, a devout Catholic, entered the government in 1980 as an administrative staffer after attending Cambridge University.

While serving as a deputy to her deeply unpopular predecessor, CY Leung, she earned herself a reputation for being a fighter – especially for meeting with student leaders during the height of the 2014 Umbrella Movement – but also the nickname “the nanny” for her complying loyalty to her Beijing-friendly boss. The latter finally stepped down for “family reasons”, in a move analysts say was encouraged by officials on the mainland.

Lam’s road to Hong Kong’s top job, has hardly been democratic, however. Although deeply unpopular among the population after her time as Hong Kong’s No. 2, and garnering a public approval rate of just 32 percent ahead of the vote, Lam won the chief executive race by a landslide after 777 members of a 1,194-strong election committee made up mainly of pro-China elites and interest groups voted in her favour.

“I don't think it's a question of a number. The question is about legitimacy,” Lam was quoted as telling the BBC following her election. “To say that I am just a puppet, that I won this election because of pro-Beijing forces, is a failure to acknowledge what I have done in Hong Kong over the last 36 years,” she said.

Her mission as chief executive, she said, was to defend Hong Kong’s cherished “one country, two systems” principal and that she would serve “as a bridge” between Hong Kong and the mainland.

But pro-democracy supporters, who had widely contested Hong Kong’s election system during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, immediately warned of what was to come.

“This result is a nightmare for Hong Kongers,” Joshua Wang, the leader of the city’s Umbrella Movement said when she was sworn in, which was around the time that Lam's third nickname, “the puppet”, really began to take hold.

On Wednesday morning, as pro-democracy supporters prepared to take to the streets to protest the contested extradition bill, a tearful Lam appeared in an interview talking about her personal sacrifices as Hong Kong’s leader.

“I grew up here together with all the Hongkongers. My love for this place … has led me to make a fair amount of personal sacrifices,” she said, rejecting accusations she had “sold out” her city.

But as clashes erupted between protesters and riot police later Wednesday, Lam’s emotions seemed to have vanished.

"It's obvious that these are not peaceful rallies, but openly organised riots," she said.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, the economist Jean-Paul Tchang said that “in a general Cold War climate, Beijing considers Hong Kong an added pawn that the West can use [against it] in the same way it has used Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang.”

“Out of this perspective, there is no backtracking.”

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