Lam and her fugitive bill: Holding a wolf by the ears

June 11, 2019 13:34
Massive turnout at a protest march Sunday reflects growing disenchantment of Hong Kong people with the Carrie Lam administration, observers say. Photo: HKEJ

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets in Hong Kong to express their anger at the government's proposed changes to the extradition law.

The Civil Human Rights Front claimed that 1.03 million people took part in the march. The police put the turnout at 240,000 at its peak.

Regardless of whether it was 1.03 million or 240,000 that participated in the protest, the message from the public is loud and clear.

But the question is, will the immense turnout prompt the government to sincerely listen to the people’s voice and withdraw the legislative initiative?

James Tien Pei-chun, honorary chairman of the Liberal Party who has always maintained that public opinion would play a key role in the whole saga, told us on Sunday that he believed Beijing would definitely re-evaluate the current situation.

It is because, he explained, insisting on pressing ahead with the proposed law revision regardless of fierce public backlash would not only make it more difficult for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to govern effectively in the coming days, it could also undermine the election prospects of the pro-establishment camp in the 2020 Legislative Council race.

If, Tien pointed out, the pro-Beijing camp’s seats in the legislature are down to only 35, it will be difficult for the administration to be able to guarantee the passage of its bills and the annual Budget in the days ahead.

However, a government source has revealed to us that the massive turnout at the June 9 march came as no surprise to the administration, and that authorities had been bracing for it.

According to the source, the government is unlikely to back down or try to extricate itself from the woes at this point, since it has already got so deeply committed to the legislative push and is now basically “holding the wolf by the ears”.

Rather, all the administration can do right now is step up efforts at explaining the proposed law changes to the public in order to allay their concerns, although there is a huge question mark hanging over how much effective such efforts would be, the source added.

As a matter of fact, apart from the widespread anger over the proposed law changes, the growing public resentment at the administration's way of governance could have been, more or less, another major factor that prompted so many people to take to the street on Sunday.

Just as Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai of the Department of Politics and Public Administration of the University of Hong Kong has put it on social media, Hong Kong citizens were joining the march by the hundreds and thousands in order to tell the chief executive that “her government has lost its authority to govern”.

Meanwhile, former Secretary for Labour and Welfare Stephen Siu Wai-keung also criticized government officials on Facebook for being unable to come up with clear explanations about the proposed law changes to address public concerns over the past few months.

Siu also slammed the administration for having failed to thoroughly discuss and respond to some of the rational suggestions on the amendment bill, echoing concerns that the legislative push is being carried out hastily without sufficient public consultation.

The former senior official urged the government to stop and think again over the issue.

According to Dr. Cheung Chor-yung, a senior teaching fellow with the Department of Public Policy of the City University of Hong Kong, a lot of citizens had joined the protest because they were worried that the proposed law changes could undermine “one country, two systems”.

As far as whether or not to withdraw the legislative push is concerned, Cheung believes the final word now rests not with Lam, but with the central authorities.

Cheung predicted that chances of the Hong Kong government shelving the amendment bill are remote, and therefore the people should get themselves mentally prepared for another major setback.

Nevertheless, Cheung also indicated that after what happened on Sunday, the Lam administration has suffered a severe dent in its standing with the citizens, particularly with the chief executive's decision to table the bill to Legco for second and third readings as scheduled despite the public outcry.

Lam would be fighting an uphill and hard battle in trying to resuscitate her popularity and public approval during her remaining term in office as chief executive, Cheung said.

The chief executive reiterated in a press conference on Monday that the government has heard various views in relation to the bill, listening to supporters as well as those opposing the planned changes.

But she said she will not back away from pursuing the legislation.   

Responding to a question, Lam also said that she will not step down from her post despite the massive protest march.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 10

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.