A political dark age has dawned on Hong Kong

May 09, 2019 08:00
Chief Executive Carrie Lam must convince Hongkongers she places their interests above the interests of Beijing. Photo: CNSA

Home prices are again skyrocketing. A constitutional crisis over a proposed extradition treaty with mainland China is tearing Hong Kong apart. First-quarter GDP growth slowed to a shocking 0.5 percent. A million mainland tourists flooded Hong Kong during the May 1 Golden Week holiday, angering locals by crowding campsites and medical clinics. The post-election honeymoon between the opposition and Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is over. It feels like Hong Kong has entered a dark age.

Hongkongers had hoped Leung Chun-ying's departure would bring a refreshing new era of reconciliation under Lam. Things did start on a promising note, with the opposition camp cozying up to Lam. The Democratic Party even invited Lam to its annual anniversary dinner, during which she made a generous cash donation. Such coziness was unthinkable during Leung's rule when the party pointedly never invited him.

But Lam’s honeymoon with the opposition slowly but surely turned sour over policy differences, such as the government’s proposal to raise the elderly welfare age from 60 to 65. Lam’s insistence on an extradition treaty with mainland China was the final nail in the coffin. It brought back the dark days when the opposition and Leung were not even on talking terms. Not only did the Democratic Party strike Lam off its guest list for March’s anniversary party, it also called for her resignation. To make matters worse, Lam sneered at any talks with opposition legislators if their sole aim was to demand canceling the proposed extradition treaty with mainland China.

I have said before reconciliation between the opposition and establishment camp, which includes the executive branch, is a pipe dream under our political system, which doesn’t allow the opposition to become the ruling party and requires the chief executive’s loyalty to Beijing, which the opposition deeply distrusts. The current hostility between the two sides proves me right.

Lam came into office promising reconciliation by reaching out to the opposition. She prioritized livelihood issues over political ones, putting democratic reforms and Article 23 national security legislation in deep freeze to focus on housing, health care, and education. But after two years in office, she hasn’t delivered much on her promises.

Home prices are soaring after a five-month lull. Even Monetary Authority chief executive Norman Chan Tak-lam warned this week the overheated market is beyond the affordability of ordinary Hongkongers.

The think-tank Our Hong Kong Foundation forecasts that private housing completions will drop to just 13,300 units in 2023. This is 40 percent lower than last year’s figure. There will be a shortage of around 85,000 public housing flats over the next decade. Waiting time for public housing will rise to six years by 2021. In simple terms, the foundation’s findings mean there won’t be enough public or private flats in coming years to satisfy demand.

I’m no housing expert but it doesn’t take one to predict the Greater Bay Area, which our government boasts could be a cure-all for Hong Kong’s vulnerable economy, will in reality drive home prices even higher as mainland firms move here to take advantage of our free society, independent judiciary, and our status as Asia’s top financial hub.

To be fair to Lam, I know she is sincere in solving the housing crisis and has pushed hard for long-term solutions such as the East Lantau Metropolis. She told me in a TV interview after becoming chief executive she would not touch the country parks if the public allowed her to reclaim land outside Victoria Harbor.

I agree with her that reclamation is the best option but the trouble with that is it’s too long-term. We also need short-term solutions because the housing crisis is now, not decades away. There are several short-term solutions, as noted by Our Hong Kong Foundation’s report, but it takes political guts to press ahead with them. Lam has so far not shown the determination to stand up to vested interests in dealing with the housing crisis as she has shown in pressing ahead with the extradition law.

I have tried hard to understand why she insists on an extradition law that includes every jurisdiction that we don’t have a treaty with when the only urgency involves a Hongkonger alleged to have murdered his Hong Kong girlfriend in Taiwan. Why not have just a one-off extradition agreement with Taiwan and deal with the larger issue of treaties with other jurisdictions, including the mainland, after a proper public consultation?

Neither Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah nor Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu gave convincing reasons during their press conference on Tuesday to persuade Hong Kong people to believe the government’s sole reason for a sweeping extradition law is to extradite the alleged Hong Kong murderer to face justice in Taiwan.

My suggestion to the government is to try harder to convince Hongkongers that the real reason for a sweeping extradition law is not that Lam is under Beijing’s directive to make it easier for the mainland to extradite political enemies or that Beijing doesn’t want a one-off deal that gives the impression Taiwan is not part of China.

What struck me during the press conference with Cheng and Lee is that they dodged on why a one-off deal with Taiwan is not possible and their insistence that the chief executive has the final say on whether someone should be extradited even if a court rules in favor of extradition. Surely they know the public perception is that Lam would not dare refuse an extradition demand by Beijing.

That is the tragic reality of today’s Hong Kong. Our one county, two systems is eroding. Opposition distrust of Beijing and its judicial system is inborn. The establishment camp’s trust of Beijing is based more on self-interest than loyalty. The chief executive is torn between serving Hong Kong and Beijing without Hongkongers knowing which has priority.

To have popular support, not just the support of a small-circle election, for a second term, Lam needs to find an extradition treaty compromise, have the guts to deal with long and short-term housing policies, tell Beijing we need to control the flood of mainland tourists, and convince Hongkongers she places their interests above the interests of Beijing. She told me in a TV interview Hong Kong’s interests come first. Testing time is now.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.