Hong Kong’s Disappearing Leader

In any commercial enterprise, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam would be fired for gross negligence. Not only is she negligent, but she is also absent from office, along with all senior advisers and the majority political party in the territory’s legislature. The whole lot should be terminated and charged for dereliction of duty.

There is no other place on earth where the governance agents of a major city flee, abandoning the streets to protestors, riot police and “patriotic triads.” Public transport, electricity, water supply, and food distribution, fortunately, continue on autopilot. Hong Kong’s well-established efficiency survives its missing leaders.

C Y Leung split too

The previously most-unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, vanished for 79 days when students peacefully occupied the business district in 2014 after China reneged on its Basic law promise for the chief executive to be universally elected. Leung’s run could have been a dodge devised by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), which, we are constantly reminded, reports to the State Council, the apex body chaired by the premier.

In no other system – democracy, autocracy, dictatorship, monarchy, or caliphate – would a leader be allowed to hide from a political crisis. If the leader loses public confidence, he will resign, be replaced, overthrown, imprisoned or shot, depending on how each system works. Only in ‘Asia’s World City’ can the leader run from trouble and resume later, with full support from the central government.

Tiananmen clue

What is the typical Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tactic in dealing with citizen activism? In the Tiananmen occupation of 1989, none of the closeted party elders -- Deng Xiaoping, Yao Yilin, Chen Yun or Li Xiannian -- faced the students after the befuddled premier Li Peng was unceremoniously interrupted on live TV by Xinjiang student leader Wu’er Kaixi, in striped pajamas, and berated. Citizens used to fawning fear of the CCP were astounded.

A testy Li Peng later fingered reformist general secretary Zhao Ziyang, blaming him for the dissent and the challenge to party authority. When Li Peng stoked the shell-shocked conservative faction to impose martial law, Zhao refused to accept it and resigned. Patriarch Deng Xiaoping, convinced this was an existential threat to the party, gave his nod.

A tearful Zhao came out at 5 am to appeal to the students to fold their protest and disperse, saying his warning might already be too late. Martial law was declared. Tanks and troops stormed the square, machine-gunned, maimed and crunched those who failed to scramble.

Zhao was stripped of his party positions and confined to house arrest till his death in 2005. Zhao felt China should evolve a free press, allow citizen mobilization, accept multiparty democracy and an independent judiciary. He was an insider, like his mentor Hu Yaobang, who knew the rot inside the one-party dictatorship. Both were particularly resented by party seniors for investigating their influence-peddling ‘princeling’ children.

Street demonstrations

Citizen protests are common across China. They are violently crushed by riot police. The government compiled annual ‘mass incidents’ from 1994 until 2008 for groups of 10 or more. Groups of over 1,000 were classified as state secrets. Official statistics recorded 10,000 incidents in 1994, 58,000 in 2003, 74,000 in 2004, and more than 100,000 in 2008. Then they stopped, or stopped being counted.

Most protests are against local party officials colluding with private developers to dispossess rural farmers off their land. On average, party officials gain 40 times the price from developers over what they pay farmers. The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimated 50 million displaced farmers by end 2011, averaging 3 million annually dispossessed.

One young man, Lu Yuyu, started a citizen blog in 2012, scanning social media platforms like Weibo, BBS & QQ for reports of demonstrations. He would contact people to verify the incidents and note the causes. He systematically categorized his data and plotted trends. Local and foreign media came to rely on his reports.

A student at Sun Yat-sen University, Li Ting-yu, abandoned her studies to help him. She became his life partner. Both were arrested on June 2016 and sentenced to four years’ jail for “provoking quarrels and instigating public disturbances.” The authorities launched various “cleanse the internet” drives to protect citizens from truth and pornography.

Wukan defies party & police

The Wukan village protests in southern Guangdong from Sept-Dec 2011 gained international media coverage. Officials used police and developers hired gangsters to terrorize villagers. Security Bureau agents abducted five villagers. Village leader Xue Jinbo was beaten to death in police custody. Police refused to release his body. Furious villagers chased the local government bureaucrats, communist party officials, and police, out of their offices.

Riot police returned and blockaded supplies of food and cooking oil. A Reuters report quoted a villager describing the riot police as "mad dogs, beating everyone they saw." Xue Jinbo’s family were persuaded to sign documents declaring he had prior health conditions which caused heart failure in detention. His body was then released for burial.

Provincial authorities intervened to restore peace. Wukan villagers wrested approval from the authorities to secret ballot for 107 representatives. Xue Jinbo’s daughter was elected into the village council. Such direct and secret voting is not allowed in the rest of the mainland. Josh Chin for the Wall Street Journal observed the election was “free of the Communist Party meddling that typically mars Chinese election results.”

What can HK expect?

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office urged the Hong Kong government to punish lawbreakers. Spokesman Yang reiterated support for Carrie Lam and the police, to enforce the law. “Violence is violence. Unlawful acts are unlawful.” Beijing’s authority should not be challenged. Hong Kong should not be used as a base to destabilize China. Yang expressed sympathy for the strung-out police force.

While castigating the protesters for violence, the HKMAO spokesman avoided mention of the ‘patriotic triads’ who beat up protestors and passers-by at the Yuen Long mass-rapid train station. Pro-Beijing legislator, Junius Ho, was on hand to hail the gangsters as ‘heroes.’ The police, arriving too late, chatted casually with the iron-bar mobsters. The mateship of the politician and the buddy behavior of the police are on press video and TV news footage.

The Yuen Long incident and one-sided exhortations by mainland officials, further alienate the authorities from the student protestors, whose anger has been simmering since the 79-day Occupy of 2014. Carrie Lam’s bumbling dash to amend the Extradition Law, despite the widespread society misgivings, and three successive mass rallies, lit the fuse.

The government’s refusal to call an independent commission of inquiry into the street violence betrays probable police liability for excessive and unprovoked tear gas, rubber bullet and truncheon attacks on the frontline protestors. The evidence is on news footage. It removes deniability for violence. Such accountability demands are wholly alien to the CCP.

Lam has disgraced the office of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Liaison Office apparatchiks strut on stage at public events and summon her to party meetings in Shenzhen – but vanish when citizens react. Carrie Lam and the Legislative Council cannot subcontract governance to riot police and Yuen Long thugs. They are paid to lead society, not hide. The students will not let them betray Hong Kong.

The author is a longtime Hong Kong businessman who prefers to remain unnamed