Protests in Hong Kong have taken their ugliest turn yet, as riot police violently clash with demonstrators, Chinese armoured personnel carriers arrive across the border in Shenzhen, and Communist party officials point to “signs of terrorism”.
Beijing is clearly attempting to send a signal to the protesters that it might directly intervene — an ominous threat meant to intimidate and coerce the people of Hong Kong against voicing their legitimate grievances against the government and its practices. This month, protests continued to paralyse airports as the Hong Kong government remained tone-deaf to a deteriorating situation.
It is now past the moment to state the obvious: the “one country, two systems” model, which is intended to allow Hong Kong to administer all areas of government separate from China outside of foreign and defence policies, has turned out to be a false promise. More worrying is the broken bond of trust between the people of Hong Kong and their representative government, led by the city’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam.
Instead of reacting to the concerns of the protesters, Ms Lam has gone in the opposite direction, doubling down on her authority. While she claims she is responding to the demands of the people, through her pledge to indefinitely suspend a proposed amendment to the law that would allow the potential extradition of fugitives to China, the reality remains that she has not recognised the severity of popular discontent.
Ms Lam is trying to manoeuvre her way along a tightrope whereby she can at once placate the protest movement and simultaneously appear strong and maintain her legitimacy. The latter posture is particularly important as her backers in Beijing grow increasingly impatient with the protests and the Hong Kong government’s inability or reluctance to use more force to suppress them.
Last month Beijing took the unprecedented step of having its state council office for Hong Kong and Macau hold its first press conferences since 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese administration.
What can be done in the coming weeks to avoid a tragic confrontation and restore trust between the people of Hong Kong and their government?
First, Ms Lam needs to stop juggling semantics and definitively state that the extradition amendment will be withdrawn — not delayed or suspended. This will not temper the frustrations of all of the protesters, but it will be the first step in the right direction, where the government shows accountability and responds to the current crisis.
Second, it will be critical to establish a transparent and impartial commission of inquiry into the government’s response to the protests, including Ms Lam’s ill-advised reference to them as an “organised riot”. The inquiry should also look into the local police authorities, including their inadequate handling of last month’s brutal attacks near the Yuen Long metro station and allegations of excessive use of force.
Third, Ms Lam should offer a blanket amnesty to all the protesters who have been detained, even if some of their actions were criminal. Without such a move, the protesters will only grow more distrustful of the government’s heavy-handed approach to future demonstrations and question its sincerity at reconciliation attempts.
Fourth, Hong Kong authorities should directly address the increasing risk that Beijing will intervene. When the state council office for Hong Kong and Macau affairs warned that the protests were showing “signs of terrorism” it suggested that Beijing is poised to move. The question remains whether this is a scare tactic or a sign of things to come.
Finally, Ms Lam must look in the mirror and seriously consider whether her leadership of Hong Kong is still tenable. These protests are not about the flawed extradition amendment or even about the government’s high-handed response.
Rather, the protesters are demonstrating a structural dissatisfaction with the failed promises that were supposed to maintain their autonomy within the “one country, two systems” framework.
The writer is the founding chair of Demosisto in Hong Kong and former legislative council member
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