With the streets roiling in angry protests and the Hong Kong government flummoxed into near silence and total inertia, this may seem an inopportune time to ask for a little sympathy and understanding for embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but here goes.
Let’s face it, at this hapless point, our Chief Executive – cursed and reviled on a daily basis for the past two months of anti-extradition madness – is not just a lame duck with three long years to go in her altogether discredited administration; rather, like the bill she was so keen to shove down the throats of 7.4 million Hongkongers, she is “dead” in every sense of the word except the physical.
It is not just that she has lost any shred of influence and respect among the pro-democracy camp. Pro-Beijing lawmakers and their supporters have also turned on her for shelving the extradition bill after having enlisted their full-throated support for its passage.
Moreover, the Hong Kong Police Force now deeply resents her for placing them in the dangerous and exhausting middle of a protracted political battle.
Finally, and most damningly, the Hong Kong people have written her off.
Shaken, chastened and humiliated, Lam is no doubt ready and willing to step down, as reports of her rebuffed attempts to resign have suggested, and she is also undoubtedly willing to make concessions to at least some of the protesters’ ever-growing list of demands.
What started as a single-issue campaign against proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to China has over a hot and turbulent summer expanded to include other demands: a retraction of Lam’s characterisation of the June 12 protest as a “riot,” an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, amnesty for all those arrested for taking part in the protests and, most recently, full-blown democracy for Hong Kong.
Chinese officialdom is loud and clear in its opposition to universal suffrage in any meaningful sense of those words, and granting amnesty to protesters who have committed violent criminal acts is also most likely a bridge too far.
But Lam could go a long way toward defusing the crisis by acceding to the other three demands: withdrawing the bill, walking back her (and police chief Stephen Lo’s) ill-advised “riot” assertions and, most importantly, establishing an independent inquiry into the whole extradition debacle, including the behaviour of the police.
The problem, however, is that our dead-woman-walking Chief Executive has been so enfeebled by her mismanagement of this protracted fiasco that she no longer has the necessary clout to make any decision without catalysing a firestorm of criticism from one side or the other.
According to reports, Lam and her advisors are open to creating an independent inquiry, an idea publicly supported by a wide range of academics, former government officials, civil servants, business groups and former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang.
But the police — who are already being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption for their sluggish response to the July 21 attack on protesters by baton-wielding thugs at the Yuen Long MTR station —stand resolutely opposed to such a probe.
Top police brass insists that the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), all of whom have been hand-picked by the chief executive, handle all grievances against the force. Critics rightly fear that any IPCC investigation could be a whitewash.
Rank-and-file officers were quick to lash out at Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung after he apologised to the public for the force’s slow response in Yuen Long. Two police staff associations condemned Cheung for his remarks, and there were a number of anonymous online posts by officers calling for his resignation.
So what if Lam were to launch a commission of inquiry that included a close examination of police tactics and conduct over the course of the anti-extradition protests? Would the rank and file revolt, perhaps leaving the city, by default, in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)?
Just this week the PLA commander in Hong Kong, Chen Daoxiang, speaking at a celebration of the 92nd anniversary of the Chinese military, signalled that his garrison is ready for action if needed.
“We resolutely support the action to maintain Hong Kong’s rule of law by the people who love the nation and the city,” Chen said, “and we are determined to protect national sovereignty, security, stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong.”
The release of a three-minute promotional video featuring the PLA’s anti-riot capabilities, not to mention their mastery of Cantonese, only served to reinforce the point.
Thus far, central-government mouthpieces, while not even mentioning the gangster-led Yuen Long attack encouraged by one of Beijing’s Hong Kong representatives, have been unstinting in their praise of the city’s police and fully supportive of Lam.
Clearly, despite the not-so-veiled threats involving the PLA, the Chinese leadership wants Hong Kong people to at least appear to take care of Hong Kong problems, including the extradition shipwreck. But, as another weekend of mass protests arrives and a possible citywide strike looms on Monday, how can that happen with a Chief Executive who has lost the support of all sectors of her city?
Yes, Lam has been astonishingly arrogant and tone-deaf to the people she is supposed to serve. But now, as the titular leader of a city that loathes her, she is simply pitiful.