Wanted: A new leader for Hong Kong

June 17, 2019 17:36
Chief Executive Carrie Lam: her sheer arrogance – and naivete – is mind-boggling. Photo: HKEJ

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s announcement on Saturday suspending controversial extradition legislation after a secret meeting with a top Chinese official wasn’t enough to pacify an angry population. Demonstrators returned to the streets on Sunday with a substantially bigger turnout than the previous Sunday’s estimated one million protesters.

Lam, who refused to apologize the previous day, finally made a half-hearted apology with the issuance of a press release where she acknowledged “deficiencies in the government’s work” and added: “The Chief Executive apologized to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

However, she didn’t meet the protesters’ demands that she withdraw the legislation, not just suspend it, or step down as chief executive.

While China voiced its respect, understanding and support for Lam’s decision, it certainly cannot be happy with the four-month-long saga, which has focused world attention on Hong Kong and the distrust of its residents in the mainland’s legal system. Lam has brought disastrous international publicity to China in her attempt to allow the extradition of people from the city to the mainland.

She has enhanced suspicions of China in the United States and brought about the revival of legislation in Washington to monitor Hong Kong. If the city loses American recognition as a separate customs territory, it will lose trade and visa privileges and both China, which derives economic benefits from the city, and Hong Kong itself, will suffer.

She has created a more difficult environment for China to discuss its many differences with the United States, just as Donald Trump and Xi Jinping are gearing up for the G-20 meeting in Osaka next week, where the two leaders may meet.

In Taiwan, she has weakened pro-unification candidates running for president in next year’s election and strengthened the incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen.

In Hong Kong, there are already signs of outside investors having second thoughts and of local businessmen moving their money offshore.

At a press conference announcing the suspension, Lam explained that the original impetus for the legislation resulted from a Taiwan murder case where the suspect returned to Hong Kong, which has no extradition agreement with the island.

Hong Kong, in fact, only has extradition treaties with 20 countries. Lam said she and her colleagues then decided to kill two birds with one stone: sending the murder suspect to Taiwan while creating a legal framework for extradition with the rest of the world, including mainland China, so that the city doesn’t become “a safe haven for the criminals”.

The response from within Hong Kong, and the West, was strong and negative. Critics pointed out that while the city enjoys the rule of law, such is not the case in mainland China, where the judicial system is controlled by the Communist Party. The proposed bill would allow foreign nationals, as well as people passing through Hong Kong, to be extradited to the mainland.

On June 9 the largest protest since the 1997 handover was staged, with a million people marching through the streets. Police action against protesters in the following days heightened concern, with dozens injured, including protesters and police.

An hour after the million-person march, the government announced that it would proceed with the bill three days later as scheduled. A million peaceful demonstrators, it seemed, had no impact. It was only after blood was shed on the streets in the following days that the government started to take a softer line.

The sheer arrogance – and naivete – of the chief executive is mind-boggling. Lam knew, unlike the general public, that Hong Kong and the mainland had engaged in discussions on a rendition agreement for 20 years. The talks were unproductive because China doesn’t have a sound legal system.

And yet, all of a sudden, Lam decided to lump the mainland legal system together with some 170 other jurisdictions and said Hong Kong would allow extradition to all those places, without even mentioning China’s policy of “one country, two systems”.

Before assuming office in 2017, Lam was criticized for being so removed from Hong Kong reality that she didn’t even know where to buy toilet paper. Now, it turns out, she doesn’t understand the most basic sentiments of the people she is supposed to represent.

China almost never admits making mistakes. But Lam may be making it difficult for Beijing to show continued understanding and support for her and her policies.

If she doesn’t step down voluntarily, Beijing may have to remove her the way it got rid of two of her predecessors: by “promoting” her to vice chairmanship of the most important advisory body in Beijing.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.