In the 22 years since the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, Hongkongers have grown accustomed to National Day as a perennial study in contradiction and ambivalence: patriotic fervour competes with large demonstrations of anti-China sentiment.
The split personality of the city is on vivid display for all the world to see.
But this October 1, which marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, opened a dangerous new rift in Hong Kong’s continuing identity crisis. And this city’s titular leader, embattled Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was not even present to witness our further descent into violence and chaos.
Tellingly, Lam was in Beijing, where there was flag-waving and jubilation as President Xi Jinping—while specifically mentioning Hong Kong, Macau and, by obvious implication, Taiwan—spoke of the importance of national unity and stability.
“No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead,” Xi stated. A massive, meticulously synchronised military parade served to back up the president’s rhetoric.
Meanwhile, back in the city Lam is supposed to lead, what we all knew was inevitable finally happened.
As the pitched street battles between anti-government protesters and police continued for the 17th consecutive week with escalating violence on both sides, an officer under assault turned his pistol on an 18-year-old schoolboy and fired at close range, hitting him squarely in the chest.
The bullet narrowly missed the heart of the young protester, Tsang Chi-kin, but punctured a lung. He underwent surgery, and his condition has improved from critical to stable.
Tsang will live, but that’s the only good news to come out of this week’s street clashes. Otherwise, it was the darkest, most violent week in Hong Kong’s post-handover history, and the shooting of a protester at nearly point-blank range, whether you feel it was justified or not, will almost certainly serve to jack up the violence on the protesters’ side moving ahead.
If the police respond with even greater force, then we must face another inevitability: someone is going to die—a cop, a protester or perhaps some combination of the two. It’s going to happen unless something is done to halt the cycle of violence.
Which brings us back to Hong Kong’s absentee CE, who even when she is physically present in the city, is absent as a leader in any real sense of the word.
Tragically, the four months of protest turmoil that have rocked Hong Kong could have been entirely avoided if Lam had possessed the good sense to withdraw her hated extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland, way back in June after the first million-person march, which she chose to ignore.
But a poisonous mix of her poor judgement and Beijing’s blind authoritarianism has allowed the initial anti-extradition bill demonstrations to morph into much broader opposition to her puppet government, to the now reviled police force propping up that illegitimate government and to the central government’s increasingly heavy-handed interference into Hong Hong affairs.
Belatedly, Lam last month announced the withdrawal of the bill—to absolutely no effect as protesters have taken on a much bigger mission and a “by any means necessary” mentality.
The shooting of a secondary school student and the mass arrests made this week while Hong Kong’s CE was playing patriot and making nice with the Chinese leadership in Beijing will only add fuel to the fire.
No one, not even pro-government politicians, is buying into the series of community dialogues Lam has announced as a way to ease the crisis, especially after the first of these misguided colloquies, held September 26 at Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wan Chai, ended with Lam and her entourage trapped at the venue for another four hours as protesters hounded her outside.
Friday’s government announcement of emergency legislation banning protesters from wearing masks is yet another damning misjudgement. This move will only exacerbate the cat-and-mouse game protesters play with police. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine officers arresting tens of thousands of masked demonstrators.
Where to put them? Hong Kong Stadium?
No, now that all the patriotic pride, pomp and sensitivities of National Day are behind us, Xi and his Hong Kong liaison officials need to steer a new course for Hong Kong.
It starts with getting rid of Lam, who—if she were mayor of a city across the border—would have been sacked long ago for a series of blundering decisions that demonstrate she is completely out of touch with the people she is charged with governing.
Lam’s got to go—and, for good measure, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, who has also been an abomination, should be axed as well. Not that a Lam and Cheng exit in itself would persuade the most radical protesters to stop throwing bricks and petrol bombs, but it would give some satisfaction to the rest of us who are positively exasperated by the rank incompetence at the top of Hong Kong’s government.
Secondly, Hong Kong’s new leader—presumably the formerly weak-willed, mealy-mouthed chief secretary, Matthew Cheung—should find a new voice and immediately announce a wholly transparent and independent inquiry into the anti-extradition debacle that includes an investigation into allegations of police brutality.
And the police need to take this bitter bill and swallow it whole for the good of the city.
That would be enough to calm Hong Kong’s roiling waters, assuring that no more schoolkids are shot on our streets next week.