Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's first female Chief Executive

The era of Carrie Lam: what’s next for HK’s women?

April 14, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

On Tuesday morning Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, who was elected by a 1,200-person committee earlier in March, received her appointment from the Central Government to become the first female Chief Executive in Hong Kong. As a career civil servant who started in 1980 and rose through the ranks, her election warrants a full dialogue on gender and the role it plays in local politics. However, that conversation never happened, being overshadowed by rising tensions in the city.

Lam represents the hope of many women in government. How does Lam’s election illustrate our gender politics? And what does her election mean for the future of women in Hong Kong?

The Burden of Representation

It is often assumed that Hong Kong is a gender-equal society, and critics even go as far as saying that “women are superior to men.”

Statistics say otherwise. As of 2015, women made up 34.1% of directorate officers. The percentage is halved for the Legislative Council—only 11 out of its 70 members are women.

Lam, as the top office holder, may provide political empowerment in the form of symbolic representation. However, there are doubts as to whether Lam can substantively represent women and their interests: she did not mention any gender issues in her political manifesto, and also said it would be unlikely for more than half of her administration to be female. She explained that there were not many suitable candidates, given how society expected they would have either served in government or in public positions.

Dr. Staci Ford (photo credits: Louisa Wei)

Dr. Staci Ford (photo credits: Louisa Wei)

Staci Ford, who teaches in the History Department and the American Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong, says any woman in power will sit in a difficult position like Lam.

“On one hand, if she doesn’t promote women’s interests, she is seen as being a queen bee. But on the other hand, if she is seen as being too ‘pro-women’ or ‘pro-equity,’ then people fear that she will not pay attention to other issues,” she says.

Ford says Lam can make tremendous impacts if she chooses to do so. But she also acknowledges that there is anxiety and resistance awaiting to be resolved in society. For Lam, it will be difficult to do everything at once.

The Weight of Words

Even today, Hong Kong has not found its approach to gender equality. They are either dismissed as “livelihood issues” that concern the minorities, or “political issues” that challenge the existing power balance. Public opinion remains polarised whenever campaigners speak up.

Not only has Hong Kong made little substantive progress, there is also a lack of awareness as reflected in day-to-day language. Many forms of sexism manage to escape public scrutiny, even when they are directed at a woman in power like Lam.

Some of them are relatively benevolent. The mainstream media went to great lengths discussing whether Lam’s husband should be addressed as “First Gentlemen” and assigned the role of a goodwill ambassador. The same question arose when Hillary Clinton was running for President in the United States.

Ford calls the term “archaic,” and says there is a need for “new language” as women rise to power. For example, she remembers that when she grew up in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, there was discussion about whether they should get rid of the term “chairman.” After she came to Hong Kong, she was surprised that people still used the term “chairlady.” But her Hong Kong colleagues said it was a way of “being respectful.”

She specifies how context matters. “If you come from one culture, you’ll say ‘oh, that’s sexist.’ But it may not seem sexist to that society. And I think colonialism has a language. Chinese culture has a language. And then there is political language. We are still figuring this out.”

Other forms of sexism are more rampant—and malicious. While Lam is an unpopular political figure, faring only slightly better than her predecessor CY Leung, she receives obscene nicknames such as 777, a number that does not only represent the number of votes she obtained, but also sounds the same as “penis” in Cantonese.

The verbal attacks reached a peak during the Chief Executive election, when netizens made use of their anonymity to spew their thoughts online. Many of the vile remarks consist of nothing more than names of genitals and visceral diseases.

On the divisive question of whether profanity is inherently patriarchal, Ford says it is “definitely tainted with sexism.”

“When we look at the words that women are called, they are always about appearance, body parts and reproduction,” she says. But she also notes political language has its own dynamics. “We have to be strategic as to how we use our language. And there are moments when we have to break and mend conventions.”

Can such language be used by women to their advantage? Petula Ho, who teaches at HKU’s Department of Social Work, sees profanity as a deliberate transgression.

“As a woman, I don’t feel discriminated when I swear,” she says. “There are moments when you can only use such words to express anger and dissatisfaction—say confronting social injustice.”


For many in society, Lam has become the symbol of such injustice. There are a few instances when she attracted public outcry: in 2007 during the demolition of Queen’s Pier, and again during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The latest controversy took place shortly before Lam resigned to run for the Chief Executive election in 2016. Without any public consultation, Lam signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing to develop the Hong Kong Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Now that Lam is the new face of government, it is not difficult to understand why there is all this anger and bitterness directed at her. And so there is a dilemma: on the one hand, there may be legitimate grounds to express political discontent, but on the other hand, such language may demean women. Will such verbal attacks become the new normal? How far will they go?

Ho opines that the line should be drawn at hate speech. She quotes the example of how openly gay Legislative Councilor, Raymond Chan, was humiliated by two middle-aged women in explicit terms on the MTR two years ago.

“I have not come across such malice in my entire life,” she says. “I played the video to my students so they could listen to every word of it in class.”

The worry is that such antagonism will continue to ferment and manifest itself in vile words and conduct. This does not apply just to Lam or women in positions of power. Ho recalls how she herself, a university professor, was ridiculed after advocating for a

blank-vote movement in the Chief Executive election.

“These [hateful] thoughts can be borne by anyone,” she says. “Many of the critics are highly educated. Yet the words they used were very ugly.”

She adds, “The split is beyond your imagination.”

Moving Forward

Lam faces a difficult start in her capacity as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, sexism or not. It takes much time to build trust and mend the rift as she has repeatedly pledged during and after the election.

Most people in Hong Kong hope to see polite exchanges and discussions that embody the most ideal form of society, a deliberative democracy. But it is not going to happen anytime soon – in Hong Kong or any other part of the world. When there are so many fiascos in the city, Ho says, tackling sexism inevitably takes a back seat.

“The greatest difficulty lies not in the dialogue within our civil society, but that between us and the government.” Ho says. “To what extent can we initiate the conversation? I really don’t know.”