Hong Kong people have, for now, been spared the threat of extradition to the mainland. For that, they can thank the arrogance and incompetence of the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, as well as their own willingness to come out on the street in near million-strong demonstrations.
Lam could probably have got away with her proposed legislation making its way through a predominantly pro-government legislature in which vested business interests are a major component. But she tried to shortcut the process, arguing that it was necessary to render a murder suspect to Taiwan. That claim was quickly despatched by Taiwan which had no intention of cooperating with a Hong Kong law which would threaten Taiwanese in the territory.
But Lam pushed on regardless, demanding the legislature bypass its Bills committee whose job was to go through the details, and take it immediately to a vote, sure that it would pass despite the private misgivings of many government supporters.
She did not reckon on either the populace or her own foolhardiness.
On June 9, three days before the bill was to be voted on, up to a million people staged a peaceful demonstration demanding that it be withdrawn. They were ignored, which triggered a strike by protesters and businesses that decided they would join the action or at least allow their employees to do so.
Then, from the early hours of June 12 crowds began to gather intent on surrounding the legislature. By midday, central Hong Kong was at a standstill, with banks closing and the legislature unable to meet. The mass – but largely peaceful – demonstration continued through the afternoon until around 4 pm when massive ranks of riot police with helmets, visors, gas masks, shields, batons and body armor advanced on the crowds behind volleys of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. It was clear that the order had been given to clear the streets at almost any cost.
Eventually the police violence worked. The streets were cleared at a cost of dozens injured and many thousands of others experiencing extreme if temporary discomfort.
But it was a Pyrrhic victory for the government. Hong Kong’s people were largely appalled by the unprecedentedly massive use of gas and rubber bullets against a mostly peaceful crowd. Lam then proceeded to compound the unpopularity of her government by blaming the events on “rioters” and disdainfully referring to the demonstrators as though they were children in need of parental discipline.
Lam, forever the stern bureaucrat without political sense, not only further infuriated millions but lost the confidence of many of the business-related supporters. Business had always been dubious of the bill, despite some amendments to attempt allay their fears. But now many could see that confidence in Hong Kong itself was at stake. Probably just as concerned as locals were the mainland businessmen who have invested so much in the city in recent years, and who had every reason to want to see it as autonomous as well as prosperous.
As pro-government voices began to urge flexibility on the adamant Lam, she was silent for two days, during which she is believed to have meet with a top official from Beijing as well as with the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Facing the prospect of another giant demonstration on June 16, she announced the previous day the postponement of the bill. However, she did so without any hint of apology for recent events, nor of the reasons for the mass opposition at home and abroad to the bill.
It was not enough to delay the bill. It had to go – and maybe Lam with it. Only distrust of Lam and her government had reached such a level that the supposed concession sparked a demonstration bigger than any before. Probably more than a million were involved in at least part of it, despite many facing huge transport problems just to get to the start of the 5-kilometer march.
Some estimates of the crowd went as high as 2 million. It went from the city’s Victoria park to the area near the legislative council. Despite the heat, the density of the crowds and the slow pace of the march as many streams came together, the black-clad demonstrators showed remarkable patience and good humor, at one point parting by the thousands to let an ambulance through. This time too, the police helped. Dressed in normal uniforms they did their normal jobs efficiently and quietly.
In response, Lam finally apologised for her failings. But it was too little, too late. Whether the bill was at her initiative or, more likely, she was responding to a suggestion from Beijing, remains unclear. But while publicly standing by her and the bill, Beijing cannot admit any role. And anyway, it has every reason to feel that she so badly mishandled it that her position in Hong Kong has been perhaps fatally undermined.
Lam has only served two years of a five-year term. Beijing cannot dump her very soon, but at the same time will not want a lame duck in charge for the next three years.
Xi Jinping may be fuming at Hong Kong’s intransigence but cannot afford to add this issue at a time when he is battling to show China as a responsible international citizen facing an American trade war offensive. Treat Hong Kong harshly and it will find its separate status under real threat. Hong Kong has also shown that although Beijing decides who leads it, public support is also a necessity.
Yet finding somehow someone who Beijing trusts but can sustain popular support through difficult times would be difficult even if there were candidates who wanted this difficult job.
The first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, lost public confidence and had to be replaced. The next, Donald Tsang, survived his term but was then prosecuted for corruption. The last, C.Y.Leung, was widely disliked and did not run for a second term. Lam started with goodwill as a motherly-looking civil servant with a smile and promises of healing the divisions from the 2014 Umbrella movement.
But in office she has ruthlessly pursued and prosecuted the Umbrella leaders and other pro-democracy politicians and with the extradition bill showed that she would be prepared to risk much to get her way. But there are limits in Hong Kong to what the police and public will accept. This is not Tiananmen 1989.