19 October 2019
Carrie Lam, pictured here with copies of her maiden policy speech, has drawn criticism after her government barred a British activist from entering Hong Kong last week. Photo: Reuters
Carrie Lam, pictured here with copies of her maiden policy speech, has drawn criticism after her government barred a British activist from entering Hong Kong last week. Photo: Reuters

Carrie Lam can’t escape blame over British activist ban saga

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has defended the move last week to bar a British rights activist from entering Hong Kong, but her remarks have only served to add fuel to the controversy. 

During a radio interview last Friday, Lam refused to go into details of the case involving Benedict Rogers, but stressed that the government had the right to choose whom it will grant entry.

Interestingly, she indicated that the decision was not her own, but that her government had merely acted upon orders from Beijing. 

“You need to look at whether the immigration process involves foreign affairs,” Lam said, pointing to the central government’s powers over matters involving foreign governments and individuals.

The comments were in line with the stand taken by Beijing which has stressed that decisions as to who will be allowed to enter Hong Kong were a matter of Chinese sovereignty. 

Beijing is “absolutely opposed to any foreign governments, organizations or individuals interfering with Chinese domestic affairs in any way,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in a regular briefing on Thursday, while rebuffing criticism from the British government over the Rogers saga. 

Rogers, deputy chair of the UK Conservatives’ human rights commission, was refused entry after he flew into Hong Kong last Wednesday on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok.

Immigration officials at the airport turned him away without giving any explanation, news that sparked wide condemnation both within and outside Hong Kong.

Many observers deemed the incident as further proof of erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and Beijing’s tightening grip over the territory. 

Lam, in her remarks Friday, effectively passed on the buck to Beijing and sought to absolve herself of blame.

Still, she can’t evade some very serious questions with regard to the conduct, as well as the rights and responsibilities, of her administration.

For starters, how could authorities ban Rogers from entering Hong Kong without providing the British citizen any explanation?

Next, what happened to the “one country, two systems” principle that promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, including on matters related to border controls? 

More importantly, since when has the city’s immigration enforcement been escalated into a foreign policy issue that needs Beijing’s attention?

Lam, whose is supposed to uphold the “two systems”, simply echoed what Beijing had said on the Rogers issue, declaring that “Hong Kong has its own immigration policy, but when it comes to foreign affairs, then it’s a matter for the Central People’s Government.”

Rogers has faced the wrath of the Chinese government as he has been vocal supporter of Hong Kong’s democracy activists, including jailed student leader Joshua Wong.

Prior to embarking on his journey to Hong Kong, where he planned to meet with pan-democrats, Rogers was said to have been informed, through an intermediary, that the Chinese embassy in London did not want him to undertake the trip.

The activist was accused of meddling in China’s internal affairs as he took up causes related to Hong Kong.

By refusing him entry, Beijing has signaled it will go to any extent to keep out foreign voices that are critical of China’s policies toward Hong Kong. 

Lam seems to be aware of this new tougher approach.    

On Friday, responding to a question as to whether Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor who has also been expressing concerns over threats to the city’s autonomy and freedoms, could also be barred from the territory, Lam did not exclude the possibility.

“I can’t exclude any possibility because immigration matters will change depending on the case,” the chief executive said, comments which drew gasps from the radio audience.

From pro-Beijing loyalists’ perspective, Lam has done the right thing by refusing entry to Rogers, a Briton who has close ties with several members of Hong Kong’s opposition camp, including student leader Wong and veteran activist and lawyer Martin Lee.

Rogers’ connections made him a suspect in Beijing’s eyes which has said repeatedly that outside forces were instigating subversive activities in Hong Kong. 

But seen from the “one country, two systems” lens, Lam’s comments on the immigration issue in the past few days tell us that the Hong Kong government’s powers on border controls are being taken away by Beijing quietly.

To be fair on Lam, she does seem to have reservations about Beijing’s moves, but the fact is that she doesn’t have much of a choice.

By describing the ban on Rogers as a “foreign affairs” issue, Lam has put the ball in Beijing’s court rather than take responsibility, conveying a message to the public that it was not her own decision.

Compared with her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, who was always ready to defend Beijing policies blindly, Lam knows how to strike the balance between Hong Kong and China.

In Rogers’ case, she has simply shifted the burden on to Beijing in a bid to gain leeway for herself.

Well, the chief executive may be hoping that her response will shield her from criticism, but she will be mistaken if she thinks she can emerge unscathed from the controversy.

Hong Kong people want to know if Lam will put up a fight in defense of the territory’s autonomy and freedoms, or will just acquiesce to Beijing as the latter encroaches on law enforcement.

The answer, as of now, is not too positive and locals have much to worry.  

The Rogers incident has, more than anything else, come as a stark reminder that Hong Kong is in danger of becoming just another Chinese city, losing its uniqueness as Beijing tightens its control.

By waffling on the matter, Lam has unwittingly helped send a message to world that Hong Kong is no longer a free city for voices deemed inimical to Beijing’s interests. 

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EJ Insight writer