Hong Kong: The crisis deepens

July 25, 2019 08:01
While protest marches are still peaceful, they are often followed by clashes between protesters and the police, usually leading to injuries on both sides. Photo: Bloomberg

The Hong Kong administration is facing a deepening governance crisis as mass protests continue over the extradition issue and violence escalates. While the bill allowing extradition to mainland China has been suspended, the government refuses to withdraw it and now, protesters have added to their demands, such as a commission of inquiry to look into mounting clashes between police and protesters.

The government has shown an inability even to discharge routine, yet highly symbolic, functions with an international impact. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who was billed as the guest of honor at the celebration of Canada’s national day, failed to show up for the event. She did not notify Jeff Nankivell, Canada’s consul general, of her inability to attend until after the reception had begun.

Appearances at such diplomatic events are rotated among the top four officials in Hong Kong: the chief executive, the chief secretary, the financial secretary and the secretary for justice.

That day, June 27, the Department of Justice was literally under siege, with hundreds of protesters encamped outside urging the secretary not to prosecute those who had been arrested since June 9, when a million people took to the streets to oppose the extradition bill, which had been initiated by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Cheng, who had strongly supported the bill, declined to meet the protesters.

Staff in the department who left for lunch did not return and reportedly were told to work from home in the afternoon. But the secretary was not seen to leave the building.

The reception was to celebrate the 152nd anniversary of the Confederation on July 1 and, coincidentally, to mark the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s unification with the People’s Republic of China.

In her absence, Consul General Nankivell had the stage to himself. He delivered a lively talk, shifting deftly from English into French or Cantonese, eliciting much applause. At the end, he raised his glass and declared: “… and I now have the solo privilege of asking you to join me in a toast to the people of the People’s Republic of China and the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Cheers!”

While Lam's support rating has fallen to lower than that of any other chief executive since the 1997 handover, that of the justice secretary has dropped even more.

According to a survey held between July 2 and 8, while Lam’s rating was at 33.4 out of 100, Cheng’s was 21.6, with 68 percent of respondents opposed to her remaining in office. Similarly, only 21 percent of respondents wanted Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu to remain. Cheng and Lee were the two officials responsible for shepherding the bill through the legislature.

The surveys were taken in the week immediately after the storming of the Legislative Council building, during which there was widespread criticism of protesters for causing property damage.

Almost anywhere else, a government with such numbers would fall, or at least the key officials would resign. In Hong Kong, however, it isn’t that easy because the chief executive is appointed by Beijing and, according to media reports, the Chinese government has rejected her offer to resign, telling her to remain in office and clean up the mess she made.

But the Lam administration may not be up to the task. In fact, it is avoiding sensitive issues. A national anthem bill, making it a crime to disrespect China’s anthem, has also been suspended.

The civil service can run on autopilot but police morale is a grave concern. While protest marches are still peaceful, they are often followed by clashes between protesters and the police, often leading to injuries on both sides.

The Junior Police Officers Association, which represents the bulk of the 31,000-strong police force, has said in a statement that management “should not assign them tasks that may result in injuries or deploy them to dangerous places to minimize their occupational risks”. Otherwise, the association said, it would “seek legal advice to find solutions that will better guarantee the safety of officers”.

On July 21, another massive anti-extradition march was held. Protesters’ main demand was a commission of inquiry to look into the background and reasons for growing clashes between police and protesters. Former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang is one of its proponents, but Lam has rejected the idea.

Lam’s closest advisers, including Bernard Charnwut Chan, convenor of the Executive Council, have said in recent days that the chief executive would make no more concessions. Evidently, an inquiry to seek the truth is considered a concession by Lam and her advisers.

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