Many were surprised when Chief Executive Leung Chin-ying alleged in a television interview that “foreign forces” were behind the pro-democracy protests.
What’s surprising is not that the allegation is new — it’s not — but that the Hong Kong leader issued it on the eve of a dialogue between the students and the government aimed at resolving the crisis.
Why would he do that?
Normally, the two contending parties in any conflict would initiate confidence-building measures to help create an atmosphere that is conducive for the talks. They would refrain from making statements that would unnecessarily provoke or anger the other side. They would try to show that they are sincere in seeking a mutually acceptable solution to the problem. They would highlight their common views and play down their differences.
But by accusing the protesters of being manipulated by external forces, which has been Beijing’s long-running allegation about the pro-democracy movement, CY Leung could be merely confirming negative perceptions that students hold against him.
One is that his loyalty to Hong Kong ends where his allegiance to Beijing begins. By mouthing the central government’s line — as propagated by the mainland’s state-backed media — that foreign powers are fueling the protests in Hong Kong, Leung is showing that he has adopted Beijing’s point of view.
And if he is only interested in taking the side of Beijing, how can the students hope that he and his government can be of any help in presenting the view of the pro-democracy camp to his mainland masters?
If that is the case, what is Leung’s reason for reopening the dialogue? Where is his sincerity in seeking to break the impasse and resolve the conflict?
The students, as represented by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, sent an open letter to President Xi Jinping two weeks ago, stressing that Hong Kong people have no intention of challenging the authority of China — and the ruling Communist Party, for that matter — in the territory.
The letter also sought to disabuse the central authorities of their thinking that external forces are involved in the campaign.
What Leung and his aides should have done is to take up the cudgels for the students, to help them reassure Beijing that they are not rebels out to undermine China’s sovereignty but idealistic youngsters who simply want to ensure a bright future for themselves and their children.
That would have shown to the students that they are capable of promoting the interests of the Hong Kong people and not just follow the dictates of their bosses in Beijing. That would have convinced the students that there is no conflict between their role as Hong Kong civil servants and their being Beijing appointees.
Sadly, Leung has shown that he can’t be effective in playing both. When he announced that the government is once more willing to talk with the students, he stressed that the students should not expect the National People’s Congress to pull back its decision on political reform, particularly Beijing’s insistence on vetting the candidates to the chief executive election. In effect, he is already closing the discussion on the most crucial issue that sparked the protest campaign in the first place, even before the dialogue has started.
As Hong Kong’s leader, it is expected of him to stand with the other government officials in dealing with the students. But the government now seems to be working in two teams.
One team is led by Leung and his consultants, and their role is to strictly follow Beijing’s direction in dealing with the Occupy campaign — to use force on the protesters if it is deemed necessary.
A New York Times report on Friday said Beijing is closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and directing the government’s response from behind the scenes. And this is likely the reason why Leung, in a matter of days, changed his view on the protests from a “mass movement losing control” to a “movement involving external forces”.
The second team is led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and a team of professional civil servants. They are focusing on breaking the standoff between the government and the students via an official dialogue, rather than blaming the students for leading an illegal social campaign.
Carrie Lam’s team appears more capable of understanding the students’ viewpoint, their fight for real universal suffrage.
While they are not able to express their sympathy to the protesters, they know the importance of public opinion in resolving the crisis.
On the other hand, CY Leung, by going all out in his support for Beijing, even to the point of antagonizing the Hong Kong people, may be undermining his own effectiveness as a leader.
At some point, his Beijing masters will probably realize that it may be expedient to replace him.
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