Government paralysis continues after electoral debacle

December 02, 2019 15:26
Chief Executive Carrie Lam's administration appears paralyzed when it needs to grapple with political issues and not just kick the can down the road, says the author. Photo: HKEJ

After a peaceful two-week hiatus during which Hong Kong held District Council elections that saw pro-democracy candidates win a stunning victory by capturing 87 percent of the seats and 17 of the 18 councils, violence returned to the streets after the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor refused to ease its hardline stance.

Last Tuesday (Nov. 26), at her first post-election media session, Lam said that she had withdrawn the extradition bill, which had sparked massive protests, and would not concede to other demands. The withdrawal of the Fugitives Offenders Bill came after 12 weeks of increasingly violent protests, preceded by two peaceful marches of a million or more people.

By then, there were four other demands from protesters, including a commission of inquiry to look into police actions, an amnesty for those arrested, withdrawal of the characterization of “rioting” for disturbances on June 12, and universal suffrage. A commission of inquiry has also been proposed by former Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, the Bar Association, various chambers of commerce and a whole slew of respectable organizations.

Lam in September announced four actions – including the withdrawal of the bill – as a response to the protesters’ demands.

Instead of a commission of inquiry, she said, a body called the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) would look into complaints against the police.

Another action was a dialogue with the community.

Finally, the chief executive said, “community leaders, professionals and academics” would be invited to “independently examine and review society's deep-seated problems and to advise the government on finding solutions”.

Three months later, the government has little to show for its efforts. The chief executive held one dialogue in September with 150 randomly selected participants at a stadium in Wan Chai, but there has been no follow up.

The committee to examine Hong Kong’s deep-seated problems has yet to be formed.

As for the IPCC, a five-member advisory panel of overseas experts from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand has been formed.

In a progress report last month, the experts concluded that “structural limitations in the scope and powers of the IPCC Inquiry remain, inhibiting its ability to establish a coherent and representative body of evidence”.

The group felt that it might be able to provide an interim report to pave the way for future action, including a more comprehensive inquiry by “an independent body with requisite powers”, that is, a commission of inquiry.

The government responded by saying that it would study recommendations made by the IPCC after the body submits its report in January. It seems the Lam administration is unable to take resolute action and would only consider doing so when pressed by a committee of its own creation.

If the government had acted in July, it could have avoided the firing of thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, the arrests of thousands of people and countless injuries. It could also have forestalled the downward spiral of the Hong Kong economy.

The government is still proceeding at a leisurely pace, waiting for the IPCC report before deciding on the no-brainer decision of setting up a commission of inquiry. The obstacle is the police force, which doesn’t want its actions examined, with Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung saying on Sunday that it would be an “injustice” if an inquiry is set up solely to look into the policing of the ongoing protests.

The police play an oversized role since the government refuses to make political compromises.

The committee on how to deal with society’s deep-seated problems won’t be formed until January at the earliest. Already, knowledgeable analysts such as Anthony Cheung Bing-leung – a cabinet member in the last administration – are warning that it cannot replace a commission with statutory powers that can require people to appear and give evidence.

Since the IPCC was given six months to report only on police events in a limited time period, the committee will need substantially more time to look at the wide range of deep-seated issues in Hong Kong. Its recommendations may also entail setting up another commission of inquiry, which will easily delay any action until 2022, when Lam will be due to step down as chief executive, unless Beijing replaces her before then.

This unhurried pace is ill-suited to dealing with the pressing problems on the streets today. The Lam administration appears paralyzed when it needs to grapple with political issues and not just kick the can down the road.

By abdicating its authority, it is turning Hong Kong into a state where the police have replaced the government and are the ones to call the shots.

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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.