For Hong Kong’s leader, pressure isn’t just from protesters

Why We Wrote This

Hong Kong’s discontent comes at an inconvenient time for Beijing. Protesters’ underlying concerns about the mainland are keeping global eyes on China ahead of the G-20 meeting – and not in the way Xi Jinping would like.

Kin Cheung/AP
A protester (c.) calls for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down as she and others continue to protest an unpopular extradition bill near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 17.

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An estimated 2 million Hong Kongers braved hazy heat Sunday to continue protesting a controversial extradition law.

The day before, Chief Executive Carrie Lam had announced she would shelve the bill, for now. But increasingly, Mrs. Lam herself is a target of the protests. Calls of “Carrie Lam! Step down!” echoed through the canyon of high-rise buildings.

Analysts say Beijing’s patience is also wearing thin. Hong Kongers’ overriding message is mistrust not only in Mrs. Lam, but also in mainland China’s authoritarian system, which they fear is encroaching on their territory’s special freedoms. That’s a blow to the mainland’s image at an inopportune time for President Xi Jinping: ahead of the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, amid an escalating trade war with the United States, and as China tries to woo Taiwan under the same “one country, two systems” model it has with Hong Kong.

Most of all, the continued protests are an obstacle for Beijing as it pushes to strengthen control over Hong Kong itself. The young generation in the streets is one that Beijing has hoped to cultivate as its own, says Samson Yuen, a political scientist in Hong Kong. “The same people China wants to pull closer, this [extradition] bill pushes them away,” he says.

When prop-maker Terry Yim joined up with throngs of marchers in Hong Kong on Sunday, he brought a homemade accessory: a pumpkin-sized likeness of Carrie Lam, the city’s unpopular chief executive, complete with tidy short hair and spectacles.

For weeks, Hong Kong residents have rallied against a proposed extradition law in mostly peaceful protests. Escalating demands for Mrs. Lam’s ouster were clear Sunday, as a plea echoed through the canyon of high-rise buildings: “Carrie Lam! Step down!” The frustration was clear: Several marchers took turns using a fake police baton to hit the Carrie Lam effigy before the baton finally snapped.

Indeed, much of the semi-autonomous city snapped this month when Mrs. Lam tried to rush through a bill that would allow certain criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, among other places with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement. On Saturday, Mrs. Lam announced the bill would be shelved for now. But the following day, an estimated 2 million of the city’s 7 million people endured hazy heat to turn out and demand the bill be killed – perhaps the largest protest in Hong Kong history. Many fear the proposal would leave Hong Kongers vulnerable to the mainland’s opaque legal system. 

Hong Kong leaders are selected by a committee dominated by Beijing loyalists, and often walk an uneasy line between Hong Kong’s autonomy and Beijing’s control. But Mrs. Lam now finds herself caught between determined marchers and a frustrated Beijing. By misjudging the depth of popular opposition, the chief executive has sparked a major political crisis that has embarrassed her superiors in Beijing at a sensitive time, local political analysts say.

Mrs. Lam “has become a lame duck,” says Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and an expert on China’s Communist Party politics. “The Chinese have made a scapegoat out of Carrie Lam; she has become the fall guy.”

At a news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang in Beijing voiced the central government’s support for Mrs. Lam. But political experts say Beijing’s trust has eroded now that she has lost the public’s confidence.

“She will be given a face-saving grace period, and if Beijing can’t find a viable successor for her, she may serve the rest of her term,” Dr. Lam says. Mrs. Lam was appointed by Beijing in 2017 to a five-year term. “But it will be hard for her to govern or push through controversial projects,” he says.

Unwelcome complication

The overriding message of the Hong Kong protests – widespread mistrust of not only Mrs. Lam, but also of China’s authoritarian system – represents a blow to the mainland’s image and an inopportune problem for President Xi Jinping, who favored Mrs. Lam for the job and swore her in, analysts say.

Vincent Yu/AP
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 18. Hong Kong's leader apologized for her handling of an unpopular extradition bill.

For Beijing, the Hong Kong unrest has emerged as a major new distraction at a time when China’s leadership is grappling with the upcoming Group of 20 summit meeting late this month in Osaka, Japan, where Mr. Xi will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump amid an escalating U.S.-China trade war. U.S. officials say Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi will discuss Hong Kong, which experts say wasn’t originally on the agenda.

The mass demonstrations have also hurt China’s bid to woo Taiwan to rejoin the mainland under the “one country, two systems” model of Hong Kong. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has attacked the Hong Kong extradition bill as “evil” and voiced solidarity with the demonstrators. “One country, two systems won’t be accepted by a democratic Taiwan,” Ms. Tsai said June 13, when she secured the nomination of her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to run again in January.

Most of all, the protests mark an obstacle for Beijing as it pushes to strengthen control over Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. The young Hong Kong residents who swarmed into the streets are a generation that Beijing has hoped to cultivate as its own, says Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

But protesters generally view the Hong Kong government as a puppet of Beijing, the ultimate target of their criticism, according to surveys he conducted. “The same people China wants to pull closer, this [extradition] bill pushes them away,” says Dr. Yuen. “This truly is a setback for China’s attempts to integrate Hong Kong.”

Roots of the problem

Indeed, Mrs. Lam’s drive to update the rendition law unnerved many Hong Kongers, who fear her administration will not ensure the territory’s rights. Residents’ freedoms, which are significantly greater than on the mainland, are supposed to extend until at least 2047, according to Hong Kong’s constitution.

Moreover, she has been saddled from the start with public suspicion because she is not democratically elected, says Dr. Yuen. Pro-democracy groups have been trying to scuttle the committee-based selection process since before the British handover.

“Her political legitimacy has never been high because it’s not a democratic system – 1,200 people elect her, not universal suffrage,” Dr. Yuen says. “Carrie Lam has this inherent problem from the beginning of the lack of popular support.”

Mrs. Lam, who was born and educated in Hong Kong, has argued the extradition bill is necessary to prevent the city from becoming a haven for fugitives. But on Tuesday, she issued “a sincere and solemn apology to all people of Hong Kong.”

“This bill over the last few months has caused so much anxiety and worries and differences in opinion,” she told a crowd of reporters. “I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed.”

Yet despite Mrs. Lam’s partial retreat – by suspending the bill – her refusal to withdraw it completely led protesters to vow to continue their street marches. Mrs. Lam said she would not resign, but conceded that “as for my governance in the future, it will be difficult.”

Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong have distanced themselves from Mrs. Lam’s positions, while reports from Beijing have emphasized her responsibility for the bill.

“A lot of the pro-Beijing parties are very unhappy,” says Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Members of Hong Kong government’s executive committee, pro-Beijing lawmakers, and a former transport minister have all urged her to delay or withdraw the controversial extradition bill.

Meanwhile, young protesters – especially those hit by tear gas and pepper spray fired by police last week – say they don’t trust Mrs. Lam’s assurances that she won’t raise the bill again.

“The people should not forgive her,” says Edmund, a 13-year-old who joined a planning session of protesters on Monday. “She did this bad thing, betraying the people of Hong Kong. It can’t be forgiven. ... She’s not worthy to be the chief of Hong Kong.”

Milly Wu, a young retail worker, insists that Mrs. Lam meet key protester demands by a June 20 deadline: withdrawing the extradition bill, investigating the use of force by police, retracting the “riot” label the government gave the protests, and dropping charges against arrested demonstrators.

Otherwise, Ms. Wu says, “our protest will go on.”

Such sentiments reflect a new empowerment among young Hong Kong people, as they relish an unexpected victory against their government through sheer strength of numbers.

“The political dynamics have changed,” says Dr. Lam. “They have mastered the means to turn out huge numbers of people, which is an impactive weapon against unpopular policies from the Hong Kong and Beijing governments.”

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