Hong Kong’s Lam backs down


HONG Kong leader Carrie Lam’s announcement she is scrapping her controversial extradition bill after five months of increasingly violent protests, may not be enough to convince the demonstrators to quit the streets. Had she done this in April instead of merely shelving the bill, the extensive physical damage to Hong Kong itself and to its reputation, would have been avoided.

As it is, the civic protestors have increased their demands, which now include the dropping of the prosecution of arrested demonstrators, an end to calling them “rioters”, an independent inquiry into police conduct and free elections to be preceded by the resignation of Ms. Lam herself.

Lam has already set up an inquiry into how hard-pressed law officers handled the protests. However, given the mood of distrust that now exists between the protestors and the executive, there is little faith in this probe being truly independent. An audio recording of Lam has her regretting the “unforgivable havoc” that her move had caused. But she is insisting the violent rioting must stop and order return to the streets.

The assumption is that the Hong Kong leader would not have abandoned the extradition bill without a green light from Beijing. The release of arrested demonstrators, particularly those who were actually involved in the violent trashing of public buildings and throwing petrol bombs may be a step too far for the government of Xi Jinping. It has characterized the protestors as “hooligans” and insisted they have been inspired by malign outside foreign influence. Nevertheless a general amnesty might go a long way to cooling the popular anger. Lam might well try to extend that measure to include any police guilty of wrongdoing, but still press ahead with public inquiry into how the street protests were handled.

Lam might even be prepared to resign and Beijing be ready to let her go. But, even though they were part of the Basic Law agreed with the British in 1997, the Chinese government will undoubtedly draw the line at the free elections. These however, are now the most controversial demand of civil activists. It is hard to see Beijing giving ground. In the present mood of the people of Hong Kong, it is very likely that given a free vote, any freely-elected new assembly would go further in challenging Beijing. The confrontation merely escalate.

The British bowed to the inevitable and handed over Hong Kong after Beijing agreed to operate a “one country, two systems” model which would give the former colony considerable freedoms except in foreign relations and defense. This deal is supposed to last for 50 years and could be extended. It was an arrangement that, until this year, worked well both for the mainland and the people of the territory. Beijing has used Hong Kong with its British law commercial courts and arbitration, to channel finance to its roaring economy. Many international firms wanting to work with mainland China have set up in the territory. But the rising chaos of the last five months has caused investors to question Hong Kong’s future stability. Unless both sides in this bitter confrontation can reach a lasting accommodation, as Ms. Lam has herself warned repeatedly, irreparable damage could be done, not simply to Hong Kong’s reputation and prosperity but to the freedoms that it currently enjoys.