23 October 2018
CE-elect Carrie Lam shakes hands with the city's outgoing leader and her former boss CY Leung. A day after her election win, authorities charged nine pro-democracy activists (inset) over the 2014 Occupy protests. Photos: HKEJ
CE-elect Carrie Lam shakes hands with the city's outgoing leader and her former boss CY Leung. A day after her election win, authorities charged nine pro-democracy activists (inset) over the 2014 Occupy protests. Photos: HKEJ

Can Lam’s pledge to unite society be taken seriously?

Following her election victory, Carrie Lam vowed on Sunday that she will work toward healing the divisions within the community and seek a more harmonious socio-political environment. 

Now, how seriously should we take her pledge?

Was she just mouthing platitudes or does she really have it in her to do a course-correction from the outgoing Leung Chun-ying regime? 

Well, let’s just say that as of now the signals don’t seem too positive for any real change on the ground once Lam takes office in July.

Just a day after the election, key participants of the 2014 Occupy movement were called to the police headquarters and charged with offenses such as causing public nuisance and incitement.

A total of nine people were charged under the Summary Offences Ordinance, putting them at the risk of facing jail time.

The defendants, who include Occupy founders Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming and opposition political figures such as Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan and League of Social Democrats vice chairman Raphael Wong Ho-ming, will appear in court on Thursday.

The timing of the action on the pro-democracy activists is curious to say the least, given that it came as CE-elect Lam was talking about the need for reconciliation in society.   

Lam claimed that she had no prior knowledge about the plan to arrest the activists, and that she doesn’t believe the Leung administration chose the timing deliberately.

But not everyone is convinced about that.

There is wide speculation that authorities delayed the action on the Occupy leaders until the CE election was out of the way, in order to shield Lam from possible questions during the campaign.

The Justice Department denied that the action had any link with the election, insisting that it acted in a professional and apolitical manner.

Whatever the truth may be, the developments make it clear that there would be little change in the administration, even under a new leader, on at least one aspect: a tough and hard approach toward perceived opponents of Beijing, using the “rule of law” red line.

This was pointed out by Occupy co-founder Professor Chan who made the following remark after he was charged by the police on Monday: “What message is this government sending to society after the chief executive election?”

While Lam denied that she knew in advance about the action on the Occupy leaders, she signaled that she will continue Leung’s tough approach toward the opposition camp.

“Prosecution actions are undertaken independently by the Department of Justice, under the Basic Law,” she said, adding that there should be “no compromise on the rule of law in Hong Kong”.

Pro-government lawmakers have welcomed the government’s move to take action against Occupy protesters and insisted that it was in no way linked to the CE election.

Lawmaker Priscilla Leung said the arrests should be seen as something completely separate from the election.

Leung said the public will agree that prosecutions would be just and fair when the political leaders of the “unlawful Occupy Central movement” finally face legal consequences for their action.

Of course, Lam can deny any involvement in the action against the democracy activists, given that she had resigned from the government prior to the election and it is Leung who is still in charge.   

But one can ask this question: was it mere coincidence that the arrests happened just after Lam won the election and she began discussions about the transition arrangement?

Notwithstanding her claims, most people in Hong Kong believe that Lam endorsed the action against the Occupy leaders and activists.

Given this approach, can we really expect her to offer an olive branch to the opposition camp and mend fences once she takes over as CE?

The answer is pretty obvious.  

Some people argue that Leung is trying to deal with contentious cases on his own and clear them before his term expires, to help Lam get a clean start in July.

But such conclusion would be short-sighted, given the record of Leung and Lam in the past five years.  

What the arrests tell us is that the administration won’t let up on opposition activists, blaming them for causing social instability and fueling rifts within the community.

Lam’s remarks on ‘rule of law’ will only reinforce the impression that she will be just another version of Leung, or CY 2.0, and strictly follow Beijing’s orders in dealing with anti-establishment figures.

Some activists who were elected to the Legco last year but have been barred from taking up duties due to faulty oath-taking will continue to be hounded.

By pursuing action against troublesome opposition figures, Lam will try to prove her loyalty to the Communist Party and the pro-Beijing camp.

Following her huge election win, Lam may feel that she needs to do something to reward her backers.

The arrests of Occupy leaders could be just a sign of things to come.

We could see, among other developments, the establishment camp being supported in by-elections for Legco seats vacated by disqualified localist activists Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung.

Monday’s arrest of Occupy leaders is proof that the government will continue to combat radical street protests in the foreseeable future.

A recent court ruling on punishments for some activists who took part in last year’s Mong Kok protests will only encourage authorities to pursue judicial cases.

Beijing has set a red line for Hong Kong politicians, telling them not to advocate independence for the territory or engage in street protests. 

In a bid to weaken the opposition camp, Lam will try to lure some moderate pan-democrats into the establishment by dangling some carrots in the form of government posts.

Along with the carrots to moderate opposition figures, there will be a stick against radical activists and independent advocates.

The Leung administration’s action against Occupy leaders Monday may be aimed at removing the issue from Lam’s plate and give her a chance for new initiatives after she takes office.

But that doesn’t mean that we are anywhere close to seeing an end of the mistrust and hostility between the establishment and the opposition groups.

In the end, Lam’s talk of mending the divisions in society and improving the relationship between the executive and the legislature may just amount to empty rhetoric and a public relations spiel.

After all, let’s not forget that the current rifts in the society are largely the creation of Lam and her boss Leung, as they failed to fulfill people’s aspirations for political reforms and universal suffrage, which triggered the Occupy campaign in September 2014.

And now, with the arrests of the movement leaders, the social rifts will only widen further.

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EJ Insight writer

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