Hong Kong was thick with rumors last Sunday when the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office announced it would hold an unprecedented media conference in Beijing the following day to state its position on the political unrest here.
Will Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor resign or be fired? Will Beijing announce an even harsher Hong Kong policy? Will it instruct Lam to order a commission of inquiry into the mess she created with her now-abandoned extradition bill? Will it use the People’s Liberation Army to quell the unrest?
Those were the speculations, but there were no such moves. What happened was the opposite. Beijing announced full support for Lam. Instead of talking tough, it adopted a measured tone by describing protesters who clashed with police as radicals rather than rioters. It dodged a question on a commission of inquiry. And it merely pointed to the Basic Law when asked if the PLA would be used to quell radical protesters.
The most notable thing from the media conference was Beijing’s total backing for the Hong Kong police. Anyone with common sense should have understood no major policies would be announced at the media conference for the simple reason that it was conducted by two spokespeople instead of top officials.
They avoided inconvenient questions, stuck to their talking points that Beijing had national security redlines that no one should cross, repeated unproven claims that Western forces were instigating the unrest to prevent China’s rise, and restricted the media event to just 40 minutes. Had they faced a press conference in Hong Kong they would have been crucified.
That’s how different the cultures are between Hong Kong and the mainland even though both are part of the same country. It’s been 22 years since reunification but Beijing has still not understood this difference. If only it had listened to different voices instead of only voices it wanted to hear, Hong Kong would not be in the mess it is today.
The press conference was unprecedented because it was the first of its kind by the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office since the handover. But it turned out to be a damp squib instead of a game changer. One protest organizer described it as a total waste of 40 minutes.
I wouldn’t go that far. Beijing intended the media conference to send multiple messages: it doesn’t consider the unrest serious enough to warrant a major policy change, it will react forcefully if it concludes the unrest is undermining China’s security, it hasn’t completely ruled out an inquiry commission, it will only use the PLA as a last resort, which is why it repeatedly praised the police, and it wants Lam to clean up her own mess.
I can see no clear path for Lam to clean up her own mess. Instead, both she and Beijing have shown how little they understand public opinion. Lam demonstrated her naïveté when she offered to meet student leaders in the belief this could appease Hong Kong’s disillusioned young people. The students rebuffed her.
Beijing showed its cluelessness when it heaped praise on the police at a time when many Hongkongers despise the law enforcement agency, and by scornfully rejecting civil disobedience as a form of peaceful political protest even though local courts and free societies have not discredited civil disobedience as unacceptable.
Since the political eruption over her now-abandoned extradition bill, Lam has promised three times in public – on June 18, July 1 and July 9 – that she will learn from her mistakes, listen more to the people, and to change her governing style. On July 9 she even admitted that the government had ignored the root causes of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. “But this time I don’t think we can continue to ignore those fundamental and deep-seated problems,” she said.
Does she not realize those deep-seated problems have worsened over the past five years? Does she not understand the government made it even worse? At no time during the 79-day Umbrella Movement did we see the kind of angry clashes between protesters and the police that we are now seeing. Tear gas was used only once at the start of the Umbrella Movement.
That first use of tear gas against Hongkongers so shocked the city that the police didn’t use it again. Now, not only tear gas but also rubber bullets and sponge grenades are being used at virtually every protest. It’s like the police have become trigger-happy.
Lam is living in La La Land if she believes she can clean up her own mess. How can she do that when she doesn’t even dare to meet the people? During the Beijing press conference, the spokespeople acknowledged that Hong Kong has deep-rooted problems. What Beijing doesn’t understand is that many of these deep-rooted problems are of its own making.
It’s no longer about the extradition bill, stagnant wages, unaffordable housing, the power of the property tycoons, and an unjust society. Those things matter but what matters more now to Hongkongers, especially the young, is the political structure that governs the city. The structure is no longer tenable.
Unless Beijing allows Lam to radically change that structure, it is impossible for her to solve Hong Kong’s deep-rooted problems. This week, 44 people were charged with rioting for clashing with the police on Sunday near Beijing’s Liaison Office.
Did the police act so quickly to please the Liaison Office? That’s the perception because the police are yet to crack down on the white-shirted triad-linked mobs that savagely beat up commuters in Yuen Long two weeks ago.
The more young people the police jail the more there will be to replace them. And those who replace the jailed will be even more radicalized. There are millions of young people in Hong Kong. You cannot jail them all.
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