Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong on Sept. 5, a day after she announced the withdrawal of a loathed extradition bill. Pro-democracy activists vowed to press on with their campaign. (Photo by Philip Fong/AFP)
This article was first published on Sept. 9, 2019
Last week Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally proposed to do what she should have done three months ago: to formally withdraw the controversial extradition bill that has plunged Hong Kong into its worst political crisis since the handover to China 22 years ago.
Yet Hong Kongers say it is far too little, far too late, and protesters pledge to keep going until she meets their other demands, which include an independent inquiry into police brutality and genuine democratic reform.
Tapes and a transcript also emerged of remarks Lam made to a group of businesspeople in which she appeared to say that if she had a choice, she would “quit.” She also observed that her room for maneuver is “very, very limited” because Hong Kong’s crisis has been “elevated … to a national level.”
So should we feel sorry for Lam who, four years ago, declared that she knew she “has a place reserved in heaven”?
In many ways, this crisis is entirely Lam’s making. Firstly, she should never have proposed such a badly thought-out, unnecessary and dangerous piece of legislation as the extradition bill, which if implemented would have ripped up the “firewall” put in place at the handover between Hong Kong’s legal system, which is based on the rule of law, fair trial and an independent judiciary, and mainland China’s, which is one of “rule by law,” a politicized judiciary, widespread torture, disappearances, forced televised confessions and executions. Had the bill passed, it would have destroyed Hong Kong.
Secondly, having proposed the bill, she should have listened to its critics. Lawyers, businesspeople, chambers of commerce, diplomats and foreign leaders spoke out early on. The U.S. secretary of state, Britain’s foreign secretary and Canada’s foreign minister all released statements. The European Union issued a demarche, the highest form of official diplomatic protest. Even some pro-Beijing legislators voiced concerns, and many offered constructive alternative proposals to resolve the extradition question, but she refused to listen.
Thirdly, after a million people took to the streets in peaceful protest, and then two million a week later, she should have withdrawn the bill then. Instead, she merely suspended it — a step which satisfied nobody, further eroded trust and raised suspicions that it would be brought back later.
Finally, she declared the bill “dead” — but still refused to withdraw it formally, leading Martin Lee, the father figure of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, to quip to me recently that if it is dead, she should bury it. Instead she continued to leave the corpse lying on the legislative table, toxifying the atmosphere even further.
Had she withdrawn the bill three, even one month ago, Hong Kong’s crisis might never have escalated to the levels it has reached today. Had she reined in the police and condemned the wholly disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, she might have won some respect. Had she engaged in a meaningful, substantive dialogue with the protesters, and offered to meet at least some of their demands a few months ago, life in Hong Kong might well have returned to normal. Instead her refusal to listen has led some — albeit a small minority — of protesters to resort to radical and sometimes violent acts and the police to unleash uncontrollable brutality.
High degree of autonomy
Is Lam just a puppet for Xi Jinping’s regime? Yes and no. Of course she is Beijing’s chosen leader for Hong Kong and cannot, ultimately, step out of line. But under the principle of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy, yet she has shown little sign of putting this to the test. A year ago, in an interview with the Financial Times, when asked to name the political leader she most admires, she obsequiously said Xi Jinping — an over-the-top instance of completely unnecessary kowtowing.
When Chris Patten served as the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, he made it clear that he wished to be seen as Hong Kong’s representative to London, not London’s man in Hong Kong. Lam has done the opposite, actively undermining and eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms, human rights and autonomy rather than seeking to defend Hong Kong.
Indeed, arguably the reason the People’s Liberation Army has not yet marched into Hong Kong directly is that there may be no need for them to do so — the Hong Kong police, combined with criminal gangs assaulting protesters, are doing Beijing’s dirty work for them in a climate of impunity presided over by Lam.
Lam is Beijing’s puppet, but largely because she has chosen to be and behaved as one. Her suggestion that she would like to resign but could not is absurd. Unless Beijing is holding her family hostage, there is nothing to stop her uttering those two simple words: “I resign.”
Had she made more effort to stand up to defend Hong Kong’s interests, autonomy and way of life in an appropriate and diplomatic way, Beijing just might have shown more respect for Hong Kong. Had she tried and failed and then resigned, history might have held her in some regard. As it is, she will go down in history as the leader who lit the flames of Hong Kong’s worst political crisis and then poured fuel on them.
She will also be remembered as a leader with blood on her hands — the blood of young peaceful protesters savagely beaten, tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed and blinded by projectiles fired at point-blank range by Hong Kong’s increasingly tyrannical police. And as the leader who turned Hong Kong from one of the most free, open and successful economies in Asia into a police state. Xi Jinping’s regime must shoulder much of the blame, but Lam cannot be excused.
No one can peer into another person’s soul, but one does have to question how Lam reconciles her record with her Catholic faith and conscience, particularly when so many of the key figures in the democracy movement are fellow Catholics or Christians of other traditions.
Hong Kong’s eminent Cardinal Joseph Zen has joined every major demonstration, while Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing has been consistently outspoken. The founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, 81-year-old Martin Lee, is a devout Catholic, as are former chief secretary Anson Chan and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, vocal champions of democracy. Other key activists such as Joshua Wong, Benny Tai and Rev. Chu Yiu-ming are Protestant Christians.
Young Catholics have been prominent in the demonstrations, there have been regular prayer vigils, and the Christian chorus “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became an anthem for the entire movement.
And yet instead of seeking to understand why so many thousands of Hong Kongers continue to take to the streets, Lam complains that she is unable to go out for a haircut while young people languish in jail, are hospitalized from injuries inflicted by the police or, tragically, contemplate suicide.
What does Lam contemplate when she attends Mass or encounters her bishop? How does she sleep at night? Does the confessional beckon her? And is she now still so confident that she has a special place in heaven?
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist and founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.