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Carrie Lam lives in one of Hong Kong’s most desirable residences, but at the cost of doing one of the city’s least desirable jobs. As the chief executive of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, she is stuck between the ever more authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping and a population in which large swaths are fiercely opposed to Beijing’s erosion of the city’s human rights and democratic aspirations. 

Government House, the august 163-year-old seat of Hong Kong’s British colonial governors, wartime Japanese occupiers and post-handover chief executives, is a sanctuary from the intense political pressure beyond the gates. “The beauty of this is place is it is very quiet, right in the midst of the city,” says Lam as she stands on the veranda overlooking the sloping, tree-lined back garden. “That sense of serenity is, I suppose, very important for a leader.”

The 60-year-old career civil servant was set to retire until appointed by Xi to take over as chief executive last year. It is a fraught time for Hong Kong, which has been shaken by Beijing’s increasing interventions, from the kidnapping of critical book publishers to the ouster of pro-democracy legislators.

In Hong Kong’s hybrid system, the chief executive is selected in Beijing but bound to uphold civic freedoms, leaving Lam without the legitimacy of a demographic mandate or the untrammelled authority of a normal local leader in Communist China. 

The “Iron Lady” of Hong Kong — as the local press has christened her — does not look overjoyed to be doing an interview that, as she puts it wryly, is “supposedly more on the soft side”. 

After a firm handshake she begins a brisk, businesslike tour of the ground floor of Government House, her kitten heels echoing off the marble flooring of the long central corridor.

First up is the chandelier and column-laden ballroom, which Lam calls the “most important area in the house”. It hosts formal functions from award ceremonies to a “family dinner” with Xi when he visited Hong Kong last July to celebrate 20 years since the British handed back their former colony.

At the opposite end of the corridor, to one side, is the small but elegant dining room where she normally takes meals with her family or smaller groups of guests. Just nearby is the main reception room, featuring a spongy carpet and a seemingly random assortment of plush armchairs lined up facing each other, primed for visiting delegations.

Government House sits on a 24,000 sq metre site slightly uphill from the heart of the business district. Looming over it are a phalanx of skyscrapers that house old financial powerhouses such as HSBC and Standard Chartered as well as the new ones such as Bank of China.

Built in a neoclassical style by Hong Kong’s second surveyor general, Charles St George Cleverly, in 1855, it has been altered substantially over the years by the 25 British colonial governors and three Hong Kong chief executives (including Lam) who have lived here.

The exterior of the building melds Art Deco, expressionistic and oriental elements, including a central tower built by the Japanese during the second world war to link the home’s two wings.

After China took control of Hong Kong in 1997, with a promise that freedom of speech and other human rights would be upheld for 50 years, the city’s first Beijing-appointed chief executive, shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, chose not to live here.

Calligraphy by Jiang Zemin, former general secretary of the Communist Party of China, on the wall of the living room in Government House © Anthony Kwan

But the next two incumbents — Donald Tsang and CY Leung — moved in and made their own adaptations, the former building a $40,000 pond for his beloved koi carp and the latter adding a “plant kingdom” of fruit and vegetables to help him de-stress.

Not for Lam, such frivolities. The only small change she made was to turn one of two tennis courts into a public seating area for the occasional open days. The best thing about living in Government House, she says, is that “you can combine work and private life”.

“Now I come to feel that working is relaxing to me,” she says. “You cannot appreciate the sense of satisfaction that I get from my job.” 

Surely when she walks upstairs to her private quarters, which are off limits for this interview, at the end of another punishing day, she lets go just a little? “Not really,” she says, with a giggle. “I have a study room up there which replicates everything in my office.”

As we sit to continue the discussion at the head of the two ranks of armchairs, cockatoos, parakeets and other birds are chirping in the garden behind us.

Lam regularly takes walks there to clear her head as she faces a range of intractable issues, from the bitter political divide between Beijing’s supporters and advocates of democracy to Hong Kong’s property prices— the world’s least affordable as a proportion of median income.

More than 200,000 Hong Kongers live in often-squalid cubbyholes known as “subdivided homes”, which are typically about 10 sq metres but rent for about $570 per month. Meanwhile, scores of Chinese tycoons such as Jack Ma of Alibaba have wildly expensive homes on The Peak, where the city’s British colonial masters once lived, or in other high-end developments.

Many Hong Kongers blame the glaring housing and wealth gap on the close relationship between the government and the city’s powerful property tycoons. Lam, who has two sons in their twenties, says she understands the frustration of young people, in particular, and has launched a modest scheme to help first-time homebuyers.

But, in a nod to the massive pro-democracy street protests of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, she suggests that some young people are being “steered towards a more radical position” because of a feeling of jealousy: “when other people have it, why can’t I?”

Unusually for a high-flyer in the well-paid civil service, Lam does not own a property of her own in Hong Kong, although her husband, a retired mathematics professor, has a flat in the gritty nearby Chinese city of Zhongshan. 

She says she cannot explain “logically” why she never bought but, partly, it is because she has been lucky enough to live in homes provided by the government since she was in her late twenties.

It seems an appropriately makeshift existence for the leader of a city that has often been called a “borrowed place on borrowed time”, after being colonised by and leased to Britain for more than 150 years, and now facing a countdown to 2047, when China’s promise of autonomy ends.

Lam has worked in the civil service her whole life after joining as an administrative officer in the housing department in 1980. She climbed steadily up the ranks before moving to the UK to head Hong Kong’s trade office in London in 2004 and then coming back in 2006 to eventually become the number two in 2012, before her elevation last year.

It has been a remarkable career given that she grew up in “very humble” surroundings in Wan Chai, a crowded district on Hong Kong island, and was the first person in her family to go to university. Her sons have followed in her determined footsteps, with the elder working in Beijing for Xiaomi, a leading Chinese technology company, and the younger a postgraduate mathematics student at Harvard. 

Lam says she has been driven by her “passion for Hong Kong” and her strong Catholic faith. She sees no contradiction between her religion and her role as the local enforcer-in-chief for China’s staunchly atheistic Communist party.

When I ask which political leader she most admires, she pays homage to Xi, who this month laid the groundwork to be China’s president for life after amending the constitution. “You may say that it’s shoe-shining but I have to say I find President Xi more and more charismatic and admirable in the things that he is doing and saying,” she says.

A detail-focused taskmaster rather than a crowd-pleasing delegator, politics has not been kind to Lam. She has been pilloried for a series of gaffes, from struggling to negotiate a ticket barrier at a Metro station to admitting she did not know where to buy toilet paper. She was “upset and angry” at the jibes initially, “but now I really care less and less”.

One member of her advisory council says that her key strength — and weakness — is her steely nature. “She is an excellent administrator but she can come across as rather cold,” he says. “I’ve never heard her tell a joke.”

A former head prefect at school, Lam told local media a few years ago that she once broke down when she failed to top her class. “I set very high standards, normally for myself,” she says. “For other people, I try to lower my standards.”

In some ways, she remains “head prefect”, given the latitude by Beijing to take on local disciplinary issues, on the condition that the real powers-that-be will step in if things get out of hand.

It seems like an impossible job, given the tightening grip of Xi, on the one hand, and the growing anger and frustration of young Hong Kongers on the other. Yet Lam rejects the idea that Beijing is clamping down on Hong Kong, insisting instead that it is defending its sovereignty just as Spain, supported by the EU, has handled Catalonia.

“If we respect the one country, then we preserve our own system,” she says.

Favourite thing

Lam struggles to think of a ‘favourite thing’ until she recalls that she did put up two panoramic photographs of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour taken by a friend who is an accountant by day.

The images were snapped high up on The Peak, where Lam lived before Government House in another official residence — called Victoria House — that came with her previous job as Hong Kong’s number two civil servant.

Ben Bland is the FT’s South China correspondent. Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu

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