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New Hong Kong leader's rude nickname portends challenges ahead

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Carrie Lam received a harbinger of difficulties ahead when the announcement of her victory in Hong Kong's leadership election Sunday received not only cheers and boos, but laughter.

[HONG KONG] Carrie Lam received a harbinger of difficulties ahead when the announcement of her victory in Hong Kong's leadership election Sunday received not only cheers and boos, but laughter.

Behind-the-scenes backing from China helped Ms Lam win a resounding victory among the 1,194 business and political elites who pick the city's chief executive, and dispatched an opponent more popular with the general public. But her vote total - 777 - was immediately seized upon as a nickname to deride the election process. In Cantonese, "seven" sounds like an expletive sometimes used to refer to an impotent person.

Within minutes of the result, the Asian financial hub's freewheeling social media scene lit up with lewd jokes and memes at Ms Lam's expense. Her unpopular former boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, had been mocked as "689" for his own low vote total before ultimately deciding not to seek a second term. The reaction showed Ms Lam would get no honeymoon before facing the same opposition.

"All politicians might be made fun of and that is quite common, but people doing it on Day Zero is a very strong indication of what an uphill battle it's going to be for her," said Alvin Yeung, an opposition lawmaker who voted in the election. "It's going to be up to her to regain Hong Kong people's trust."

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The election became the latest flash point over Beijing's perceived encroachment on the "one country, two systems" framework that guarantees independent courts, a free press and a capitalist financial system in the former British colony. While Ms Lam regularly received high approval ratings during five years as Hong Kong's No 2 official, opinions of her soured amid media reports of China's efforts to sway the vote in her favour.

In her victory speech, the city's first female leader signalled a change from Mr Leung's take-it-or-leave-it approach, which pro-democracy advocates have blamed for inflaming tensions and fueling a new pro-independence movement. She promised to solicit a "spectrum of voices," especially among young people, and increase communication through social media such as Facebook. 

"My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration - and to unite our society to move forward," said Ms Lam, 59. "It is through real work and actual results that I will respond to those who support me, and garner the recognition of those yet to support me."

During the campaign, Ms Lam pledged to rein in home prices, modify the city's tax code and bolster an economy vulnerable to China's slowdown and US interest-rate increases. Her plan to boost spending will be aided by a projected budget surplus of HK$92.8 billion (S$16.7 billion) for the current fiscal year.

The chief executive-elect showed patience as reporters repeatedly asked about the vote tally, saying she didn't know whether "777" would stick. "Nicknames are what other people come up with," she said. "I'm very honored and very happy to get these votes." Hong Kong is obsessed with numerology. Some buildings don't identify floors with number combinations including four because it sounds like the word for "death". Eight is thought to be lucky because it sounds like "prosperity." Last year, an unidentified buyer paid HK$18.1 million at auction for the license plate 28 because it sounds like "become wealthy."

Chan Wing-kee, a representative of China's national legislature who voted for Ms Lam, dismissed the negative connotation, saying "777 is a lucky number." "Carrie Lam's victory means a change of luck for Hong Kong," Mr Chan said.

The election system has generated controversy since before the UK surrendered control in 1997, and was at the centred of a decision by student groups to occupy large swaths of the city two years ago. Joshua Wong, 20, who helped lead those protests, said Ms Lam had been selected by Chinese President Xi Jinping, not Hong Kong.

"What Hong Kong people deserve is one person, one vote," Mr Wong said outside the convention centre where the electors, including nine billionaires collectively worth more than US$100 billion, cast their votes. "Hong Kong people will be dissatisfied at the election result because it can't represent the people's stance."

Mr Wong's political group Demosisto said it planned to organise a "large civil disobedience protest" during Ms Lam's inauguration on July 1, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover. Mr Xi may attend the event in what would be his first visit since taking power in 2012.

On Monday, police notified other leaders of the Occupy protests, as well as six politicians, that they would be prosecuted for their alleged roles in the 2014 demonstrations, the South China Morning Post reported. Among them was Benny Tai, a University of Hong Kong law professor whose writings inspired the protests.

Ms Lam told reporters she couldn't say whether the timing so soon after her election was deliberate, adding that bridging political divides "should not compromise rule of law," according to the paper.

Ms Lam took 67 per cent of votes cast in the election compared with 31 per cent for her main rival, former Financial Secretary John Tsang, who held a wide lead in public opinion polls and had strong support from the committee's 325-member opposition bloc. A third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, got 1.8 per cent.

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, under China's State Council, said that Ms Lam met the standards of "loving the country and Hong Kong, being trusted by the central government, being capable of governing and enjoying the support of the people," the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing an agency spokesperson. The Chinese government must still formally confirm her appointment.

Mr Tsang offered his congratulations to Ms Lam and called on her to reach out to the city's opposition coalition known as the pan-democrats, none of whom supported her candidacy.

"Carrie has to work harder on communications with the pan-dems," Mr Tsang said. "Without support from the full political spectrum, it's difficult for governance."