Carrie Lam, beware: Hong Kong’s endgame has started

July 04, 2019 08:00
What should have been a day of celebration marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China became a day of surrealism. Photo: HKEJ

Two years ago, on July 1, 2017, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor strode on stage to be sworn in as the city’s new chief executive by President Xi Jinping who was in Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the reunification with China. Although selected by a committee of 1,200 in a small-circle election, Lam exuded the self-confidence of a new leader with a mandate to govern after the divisive rule of predecessor Leung Chun-ying.

Radiant in a pink cheongsam and a long white coat, she looked cocksure on that stage with Xi as she pledged allegiance to the country and the Basic Law. Being the city’s first woman leader wasn’t lost on her. She relished it. No way could she have guessed that two years later her overbearing attitude, swagger, and domineering ways would trigger Hong Kong’s worst political crisis.

Three days ago, on July 1, 2019, Lam stood on that same stage to mark the 22nd anniversary of the reunification. She looked nothing like her former self. Gone was the radiant look, self-confidence, and arrogance. Wearing a subdued black dress and white jacket, she looked haggard, lost, and defeated. It was as if the life had been sucked out of her.

Politics can do that to people. It knows no mercy. The bigger you are, the harder you fall. As chief executive she ruled with an authoritarian streak, putting her top aides and advisers on very short leashes. Stories abound of her lecturing those who offered opinions different from hers. This was particularly true with her now suspended extradition treaty with mainland China. She scolded those in her inner circle who advised against the treaty. One top official told me Lam is not a leader who easily accepts different opinions.

What should have been a day of celebration marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China became a day of surrealism. If a painting were to be drawn, it would have to be a surreal juxtaposition of extraordinary events that all took place during the course of a single day. In the morning we saw a gaunt Lam pleading for a new beginning inside the Convention Center where VIP guests were forced to watch the flag-raising ceremony on large screens to avoid protests outside.

Later that afternoon we saw protestors breaking into, occupying, and vandalizing the Legislative Council. We saw riot police firing pepper spray and teargas. And we saw 500,000 Hongkongers taking to the streets to peacefully demand that the government withdraw instead of just suspend the extradition treaty with mainland China.

Only in Hong Kong is such starkly different scenes possible in a single day. We are a tiny city of 7.4 million that is part of China with its 1.4 billion population. Yet Hongkongers have the guts to stand up to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. What happened three nights ago when angry young protesters occupied Legco was a great humiliation for Xi and the motherland.

The world watched in disbelief as protesters stormed the legislature, defaced the China part of the Hong Kong emblem, unfurled a colonial-era British flag, trampled on portraits of pro-Beijing Legco presidents past and present, and sprayed slogans on walls that insulted China and the police.

How could this have happened in a city that is part of totalitarian China? Who are these young people with such grit that jail, rubber bullets, teargas, and the might of the Communist Party don’t scare them? Why are they risking their safety and future by breaking the law? Are they puppets of external forces who pay them to use Hong Kong to destabilize China? Or are they acting out of frustration because the government has ignored their grievances for too long?

I have said before and will say again that those who blame foreign forces, such as the CIA, must provide proof. They have not been able to since the Umbrella Movement when they made the same claims. In the absence of proof we must dismiss such claims as a diversion from the hard truths.

The hard truths are that young people have lost hope, Hongkongers in general feel Beijing’s tightening grip on the city is suffocating them, and many now believe Hong Kong’s government structure under "one country, two systems" is no longer meeting the political aspirations of the people.

The hardest truth is that even after 22 years of reunification many people, especially the young, choose to identify themselves as Hongkongers instead of Chinese. They find mainland culture, habits, and the people alien to the Hong Kong way of life. The blame for this lies more with Beijing than Hong Kong people. Beijing wants Hong Kong people to understand and embrace the motherland but has done little to understand Hongkongers.

During her handover anniversary speech three days ago, Lam said the fury over her proposed extradition treaty had taught her a lesson. She asked for a new beginning by promising to listen to all views. But talk is cheap. You cannot have a new beginning without sweeping out the old. First to go must be Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah. Her haughtiness matches that of Lam. As the government’s top legal adviser she should have warned Lam about the pitfalls of the extradition treaty.

Executive Council convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan shifted with the wind, first supporting and then expressing reservations about the treaty when two million people took to the streets. Lam doesn’t need such doublespeak advisors. The chief executive must include honest brokers in her cabinet and she must learn to listen.

More importantly, Lam must tell Beijing’s liaison office here to butt out of local affairs. It is not for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to say those who stormed Legco must be charged. It is for our own Justice Department to make a fair decision. We are a city ruled by law, not by man.

A new beginning must include preserving the autonomy that was promised Hong Kong. No more disqualifying election candidates Beijing doesn’t like. No more expelling foreign journalists. No more banning fringe political parties.

Last Monday’s storming of Legco took Hong Kong politics where it’s never been before. If Lam really means what she says about wanting a new beginning then she should delay no more in proving it with words and deeds. She needs to understand the storming of Legco was the beginning of the endgame for Hong Kong. If she wants the endgame to end her way, she needs to play it right.

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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.