The Hong Kong government had been hoping that by doing nothing to assuage popular discontent and demonstrators’ ire, the situation would gradually calm down. It was relying on demonstrator fatigue and broader fears of the impact on the economy, suffering in particular from a sharp decline in tourism. It has been proved wrong – again.
While it – and Beijing – continue to heap praise on the territory’s police, despite massive evidence of abuse of force, the public standing of the huge (35,000) body appears to have reached an all-time low. Its indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets in confined spaces of shopping malls and train stations has alienated a majority of people not engaged in demonstrating and, in many cases, not in sympathy with the activists.
A survey conducted by the South China Morning Post, a newspaper mostly sympathetic to the government, found that only 27 percent of the people trust the police, more than half condemned them for excessive force and two-thirds want an independent judicial inquiry into the force. Such a potentially soothing measure has been repeatedly rejected by a government which is not just following orders from Beijing but may be afraid of a force over which ministers appear to have limited control. (Chief Executive Carrie Lam will remember the police revolt in 1978 which forced then-governor Murray MacLehose to back off prosecuting past police corruption.)
Lam’s attempt to give credibility to an inquiry by the so-called Independent Police Complaints Council has been repeatedly rebuffed. Five overseas experts asked to join the panel declined to do so on the grounds that it had insufficient authority to summon witnesses or conduct an in-depth investigation. The government is also known to have approached some retired judges to join, but none has accepted. The IPCC has also faced a legal challenge to its right to initiate investigations because it lacked statutory authority.
Perhaps worse for the government than views of the police was that no fewer than 27 approved of such direct action as blocking roads and MTR stations, and 19 percent supported attacking public property. Although only a few, mostly young, participate in such actions, the degree of sympathy for them is remarkable.
According to the SCMP survey, trust in the judiciary has also turned marginally negative, probably because pressure not to appear too independent of the executive has ramped up and is seen to influence the lower levels of the judiciary, in particular when confronted with a huge number of cases of alleged illegal assembly, let alone more serious offenses such as rioting. However, the government’s mask ban has been declared unlawful by the High Court and the issue will now go to the Court of Final Appeal.
While Hong Kong continued to show defiance toward Beijing, President Xi Jinping was in Macao to celebrate 20 years since the handover of the former Portuguese colony. He was full of praise for its “patriotism” – i.e., lack of any political activity or demand for any real autonomy. – and economic progress. Not mentioned was the fact that the economy is now even more dependent on the gambling industry than in 1999, and that much of that is a means by which megarich mainlanders launder ill-gotten gains, and/or use it to evade foreign exchange controls.
Meanwhile back in Hong Kong, the government has resorted to allegations of money laundering by persons connected with Spark Alliance, a fund set up to support protesters and said to have raised HK$80 from crowdfunding. The police enthusiasm in this regard contrasts with its failure to investigate the millions which daily flow into Hong Kong banks, the proceeds of crime or tax evasion by mainlanders, or the loot of corrupt leaders around Asia and Africa.
The Spark Alliance arrest also puts the spotlight on HSBC, which closed the Spark account in November. It insisted that there was no connection between the closure and the arrests. Whatever the precise facts, it pointed to the ever-growing danger to Hong Kong’s position as a safe-haven financial center if required to implement politically-motivated allegations inspired by Beijing.
Xi’s efforts though Lam to bring Hong Kong to heel have not been yielding much fruit. The day after his Macau stay was marked by a Hong Kong protest in support of the Uighurs suffering from mass-re-education. This issue, like Hong Kong’s own protests, has lowered China’s image around the world. But Xi appears to believe that his sense of face is more important than national interests.
The Hong Kong elite’s grovelling to Xi may be pragmatic but can go to extremes that even Carrie Lam’s husband cannot stomach. While the assembled company clapped in unison as a patriotic song “Sing for the mother country” was sung in front of Xi appearing on stage in Macau, Lam Siu Por alone stood motionless, his hands joined together, his lips not moving at a ceremony which looked like a miniature version of idolatry to the North Korean Kims.