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Carrie Lam's shaky mandate to lead a divided Hong Kong

Territory's first female chief executive will have to win over a dubious public

HONG KONG Despite Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's landslide victory in the Hong Kong leadership election, there is little guarantee that the Beijing-backed bureaucrat can be a uniting force for the divided territory during her five-year term.

It was to a chorus of cheers and jeers that the 59-year-old Lam was elected on March 26 as Hong Kong's first female chief executive. Her winning vote count of 777, or 67% of the 1,163 valid ballots cast by a small circle of notables, has emerged as a source of division. Pro-Beijing loyalists are calling the number a "symbol of luck," citing its use for jackpots on slot machines and its biblical significance.

Her online detractors, however, have made remarks about how the Cantonese word for "seven" sounds similar to the derogatory slang expression for stupidity and the male sex organ.

The debate over numbers may be an amusing diversion, but Hong Kong's deepening political divide remains a serious problem.

The election marked the fifth leadership race since Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997 under an agreement that promised a high degree of autonomy in the former British colony. Despite Beijing's pledge, fears of political intervention from the mainland are growing. And those fears have only deepened with recent incidents, including alleged abductions by Chinese security agents and the barring of two elected lawmakers from taking office.

In 2014, public frustration over the lack of full universal suffrage for the chief executive elections boiled over in the form of the 79-day Umbrella Movement protests, which paralyzed parts of the city. Beijing, however, has refused to yield on the issue.

Hong Kong's 7 million residents had little say in the election results. Instead, a 1,194-member election committee, comprising mostly Beijing-friendly elites and businesspeople, picked Lam, the former chief secretary, for the top job.

UNCONVINCED The pushback was immediate. A crowd of pro-democracy protesters clashed with police as they expressed their anger at the election. Elsewhere, however, pro-mainland supporters could be seen waving the Chinese flag. Lam knows she's got a lot on her plate. "The work of uniting our society to move forward begins now," she said in her victory speech.

But for many Hong Kongers, these are empty words. Like her predecessors, Lam is widely perceived as the product of an unrepresentative system and lacks the public mandate to heal a polarized society.

Critics say many distrust Lam due to her controversial role in a project to build a Hong Kong branch of Beijing's Palace Museum without consulting the public.

Some see traces of Chinese President Xi Jinping's strongman style in Lam. After police arrested leaders of the Umbrella Movement protests on March 27, the day after Lam's victory, Lam said of the crackdown: "[Mending political rifts] should not compromise the rule of law."

"Judging from what happened, it's the complete opposite of what Beijing wants in terms of repairing its relationship with Hong Kong society," said Wong Chi-wai, a college lecturer and spokesman for Academics in Support of Democracy, refering to the election result. Wong said Lam's victory represents a "failure of reflecting public opinions."

A recent poll by Chinese University of Hong Kong showed Lam's popularity rating at just 30%, nearly 20 percentage points lower than that of her main rival, ex-Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah.

Tsang consistently topped the popularity ratings, helped by his easygoing personality and sense of humor. He won 365 votes, mostly from the pro-democracy camp, which had over a quarter of the total votes. Another candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, attracted just 21 votes.

"The reality is that no matter how well you play in the game, how many points you score, you might still lose," Tsang said after the election, hinting that the election committee was under pressure when casting their votes.

In February, Zhang Dejiang, China's No. 3 official and an ally of former President Jiang Zemin, reportedly named Lam in a closed-door meeting as the "only contender" with Beijing's blessing. This was just months after Lam received an on-camera hug from a Chinese statesman, a gesture widely seen as having outsize importance in Chinese politics.

Tsang warned that Lam's low public support could make her job extra difficult. "She needs to win the support and encouragement from society or she can't achieve anything," he said. "If she were a dictator, I hope [she's] a good-hearted one."

Nikkei staff writer Joyce Ho in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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