Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam was in Beijing mid-December for her ‘duty report’ after six months of strife, disruptions to public transport, and the arrest of 6,000 youngsters in what until recently was a most orderly and safe city with what equally recently was a deeply respected police force.
She was praised as “courageous” by China’s General Secretary Xi Jinping. He also applauded the Hong Kong police, who seemed to have utterly lost control of their city, beating people at random, and who were answered by protesters willing to commit plenty of violence on their own. Premier Li Keqiang cautioned Lam to restore public order soonest.
Such praise from Beijing was bizarre for Lam’s failed leadership, incompetent governance and half a year of street chaos. It was particularly tone-deaf of the leader following the rout of pro-Beijing candidates at the November district elections. Voters flipped control of 17 of 18 district councils to the democrats. Previously, all 18 district councils were run by Beijing proxies.
What can explain this farce? Were the leaders soft on Lam because they egged her to float the extradition bill which triggered the mass protests and spurred the city’s besieged youth to create five demands, an investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, the release of arrested protesters and a complete retraction of the official characterization of the protests as "riots.” Beijing withdrew support for Lam abruptly to save Xi embarrassment at the G20 Summit in Japan. She offered to resign. Beijing preferred to keep her standing to take the hail of arrows.
Lam wholly to blame?
Beijing has singularly failed to win the ‘hearts-and-minds’ of its Hong Kong citizens since 1997. A one-party police state, ruling top-down through fear since 1949, preserving power for its party elite, cannot adjust to transparent, accountable governance. Hong Kong is now trapped in a Communist-colonization nightmare. That fright has panicked its youth to force a reckoning on the streets.
The Basic Law, designed to govern the territory until 2047, was the social contract agreed at the handover, which Hong Kong citizens believed in good faith. The betrayal of that by Beijing is at the core of the collapse of trust. All the fears of a damned future are given virulent expression by the next generation. The hollow slogan of “One Country, Two Systems” is a bad joke no one believes, least of all the party itself.
The National People’s Congress unilaterally changed the Basic Law provisions for direct election of the chief executive and legislators by universal suffrage in 2014, after stalling for 17 years. So universal suffrage, personal freedoms, the rule of law, and a free press are, rightly or wrongly, hostage to Beijing – which sees no obligation to meet some theoretical gold standard of legality, accountability or governance.
Opaque and unaccountable
Power is crudely absolute within Communist Chinese rule. The party answers to no one but itself. ‘Rule by law’ on the mainland is the framework to reinforce the supremacy of the party over citizens. That allows arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearance of anyone, including human rights lawyers defending the victims.
“Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” is a blanket charge to truss up critics and dissidents. Neither the individual nor his family is protected from State terror. state law in China serves to punish citizens, not defend them against abuses of power. How Hong Kong’s Common Law system can reconcile with that is unknown.
The territory of Hong Kong and the 7.4 million people who live in it are now subject to the rules and restrictions which China decides. It is not for the UK, US or the UN to referee China’s control over Hong Kong. China has the power, the money, the goons and the guns to do what it likes, when it likes, where it likes. So far, mostly on its own people.
While governments in mature societies are subject to term elections, the people of China have had no such choice since 1949. They are indoctrinated from childhood to celebrate the glorious rule of the party. Hong Kong has been diagnosed as lacking such “patriotic education.” That is being speedily rectified with new school textbooks.
The party has installed face-recognition cameras to track its mainland citizens around the clock and assign “civic scores.” That repression-technology is being offered to other regimes who fear their people too – on top of the Great Firewall of digital detection. It is a matter of time when all that is introduced to Hong Kong, if not already underway!
The lost generation
The arrested youth and their protest colleagues will constitute Hong Kong’s first lost generation. They will be blacklisted, denied employment and blocked from government benefits forever. That is probably an understatement. The punishment for dissidents in China extends to their families too. The party neither forgets nor forgives.
HR managers in Hong Kong companies are told to screen out protest candidates. School teachers and principals are being monitored for their opinions. A chill descends on society to keep views hidden. Big Brother sees all and hears all. Fear is a prerequisite for totalitarian rule. It is now fouling the Hong Kong air with the pollution.
What lessons for Beijing?
Many in the territory wonder if Beijing might learn from the electoral drubbing its proxies suffered in November. That is entirely the wrong question. The party only learns decades after its policy disasters, when another generation of party theorists analyze failures “scientifically.” For the present, it always “teaches” citizens not to disobey.
The puppet-masters are unlikely to yield any further democratic concessions to Hong Kong for a process they cannot fix. The party must dictate the outcomes before any voting. The voting is the veneer to legitimize its rule, like its rubber-stamping legislators who clap and raise hands on cue, like mechanized robots.
Restoring universal suffrage as promised by the Basic Law is the core demand of the youth protestors along with the rest of what have become known as the Five Demands. None of these can be conceded by a regime whose operating logic is repression, not accommodation.
As Hong Kong does not yet have a leader chosen by its citizens, and answerable to them, puppets like Carrie Lam will carry no clout. She can only pirouette as prepped by Beijing. The party is in overdrive to inject loyalists into Hong Kong’s institutions of education, civil service, and the judiciary before electoral reform can be considered.
Losers seek largesse
Regina Ip, champion of the aborted 2003 Article 23 Security Bill, and member of Carrie Lam’s Executive Council, is also chair of the New People’s Party (NPP) wiped out in the district council elections. The NPP demanded a meeting with Carrie Lam and rejected her apology. It wanted more.
Pro-Beijing losers think the Hong Kong government owes them sinecures to compensate. “We did not lose because of our performance, but because of the government and politics... We hope the chief executive will not just talk, but improve governance and benefit Hong Kong with concrete actions,” thundered Ip. She has to find alternative income for NPP ex-district councilors.