Does Carrie Lam deserve a second chance?

June 20, 2019 08:01
Chief Executive Carrie Lam makes a public apology for the turmoil triggered by her extradition bill on Tuesday. Photo: Bloomberg

On Sunday morning, just hours before a mass protest, Beijing’s liaison office summoned its Hong Kong allies to a closed-door meeting at its headquarters in Western district. Top officials at the liaison office had a clear message: foreign forces were behind the political unrest over a proposed extradition treaty with mainland China. The more than 200 local delegates to the National People's Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference who attended were told to alert Hongkongers about being used as pawns.

That afternoon, an estimated two million people jammed the city’s streets to oppose the proposed extradition law. Does the liaison office seriously believe Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong have the mandate, clout, and credibility to convince Hongkongers they are being duped by foreign forces? And does it seriously believe the people are so stupid that foreign forces could trick two million to protest?

Mainland officials, state media, and local loyalists insult the intelligence of Hong Kong people with repeated claims that foreign forces are at play whenever there is political dissent. The more they say it the less credibility they have. Far from being gullible, Hong Kong people are super smart. They can see through unproven claims of foreign interference.

What exactly do Beijing officials mean when they say there is foreign interference? Do they mean US officials meeting with pan-democrats to oppose the extradition law and to support Hong Kong’s freedoms? Or do they mean Western spy agencies, such as the CIA, secretly urging and financing mass protests?

If they mean simply meeting with the opposition, then it’s a stretch to say that’s interference because Western democracies consider it a moral duty to support freedoms. If they mean the CIA financing mass protests, then we need proof that the young people, the disabled, the parents with their children, and the couples holding hands who took part in Sunday’s protest by two million people were all duped by the CIA.

Our top government officials further insulted the intelligence of the people by insisting everyone, from lawyers and businessmen to students and housewives, had misunderstood the extradition law. There is nothing to understand. The government can put the law details in big, bold letters using language designed for idiots and the people would still reject it.

The reason is simple – Hong Kong people simply don’t trust the mainland’s judicial system whatever safeguards are put in the proposed law. It doesn’t matter that extradition requests must go through local courts. To Hongkongers, even if one person is extradited to face mainland justice, it’s one too many.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor failed to grasp this at first when she set out to blindly ram the law through the Legislative Council, which is dominated by government allies after the disqualification of six opposition members. But mass protests two Sundays in a row – the first drawing a million people and the second two million people – opened her eyes.

She knew she had badly misjudged public fear of the bill and anger at her arrogance. She knew she had embarrassed Beijing by shining a spotlight on the mainland’s notorious judicial system and the mistrust Hong Kong people have of the motherland. And she knew that by asking for Beijing’s backing for the extradition law she had humiliated her bosses when she had no option but to do a U-turn after the mass protests and international criticism.

It is not a sign of weakness when leaders admit mistakes and apologize. It is a sign of strength. Lam showed strength – although it was a long time coming – by humbly apologizing to all Hongkongers and accepting full responsibility for the extradition political storm at a press conference two days ago. It took a lot of courage and self-reflection for Lam to do that because saying sorry doesn’t come easily to her.

Lam’s critics say she didn’t go far enough in apologizing and that she sidestepped key demands to completely retract the extradition bill and to declare the protest violence was not a riot. I agree she could and should have done better. She wasted an opportunity to connect with the people. But I also understand her constraints.

As the chief executive, she would be interfering with the law and order process if she declared the violence was not a riot. Doing that would make her no better than an authoritarian leader who overrides the independence of the Justice Department. Even US President Donald Trump came under criticism for trying to interfere with the Justice Department investigation into Russian meddling in US elections.

Completely retracting the extradition bill would be too bitter a pill for Beijing to swallow after top mainland officials and state media stuck their necks out to support it at Lam’s urging. Letting it die in Legco, which is what will happen, is Beijing’s preferred option because it saves face and doesn’t send the message Beijing will always yield like it did with Article 23.

Carrie Lam asked for a second chance at her press conference two days ago. Does she deserve it? I am of two minds but for the sake of Hong Kong, not for her sake, I feel she should be given a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance if they admit their shortcomings. This includes Lam. We should think of her not as the chief executive but as an ordinary person who we, as a compassionate society, should show sympathy when she admits she failed in her job.

Showing sympathy and being forgiving not only show Hongkongers are compassionate but will help to heal our divided society. That doesn’t mean we should give Lam a free pass. She has to prove every single day she is receptive to public opinion. She has to convince every Hongkonger she places their interests above the interests of Beijing. She has to replace her arrogance with humility.

If, in her remaining three years as chief executive – I don’t think Beijing will give her another term – she shows Hong Kong’s interests matter less than those of Beijing, the people should come out in even greater numbers than two million to send a message that Hong Kong people can forgive but not forget.

– Contact us at [email protected]


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