The last thing our battered, bruised and bleeding city needed yesterday was a policy address from a chief executive who, according to a recent poll, 80 per cent of Hongkongers want to toss out of office.

But that’s what we got, and it was, like every other strained appearance by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor over the past four months, an excruciating spectacle to watch.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Forget the new initiatives that she announced—the promise of 10,000 transitional homes for the grassroots and the soberly delivered pledges to relax restrictions on loans for home mortgages, bolster land supply, enhance transport subsidies and increase spending on welfare and health care as Hong Kong faces its 19th consecutive week of political turmoil and violent street protests in the midst of what is being called “a technical recession.”

They mean nothing when delivered by a leader who is currently the most reviled person in Hong Kong. Even pro-Beijing lawmakers, worried about their reelection prospects, were either openly critical of  Lam’s speech or, as the phrase goes, damning with faint praise.

Surely, one important measure of an effective policy address is whether the chief executive is allowed to deliver it in the designated venue.

Well, that didn’t happen.

October 16 LegCo policy address protest

Pan-democrat legislators, smelling blood and playing to the protest hordes that have consistently swelled Hong Kong’s streets since June, twice heckled Lam into silence and retreat as she attempted to deliver her address in the Legislative Council Chamber.

It didn’t take long for pro-government Legco President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen first to suspend the address and then, following the second round of pan-dem harassment, throw in the towel and adjourn the meeting altogether.

In the end, Lam was forced to deliver what is supposed to be her signature policy speech via video link to a city that was largely tuned out anyway—only the latest in a series of humiliations experienced by Hong Kong’s putative leader.

Tellingly, although Legco’s pan-dems could not resist exploiting the occasion of Lam’s address for protest histrionics, the streets surrounding government headquarters in Admiralty were empty of the tens of thousands of black-clad demonstrators who for the last four months have been railing against the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing.

Riot police Legislative Council Policy Address
Riot police outside the Legislative Council ahead of the announcement of the 2019 Policy Address. Photo: Citizen News.

That’s because Lam has become an irrelevance to them, a cipher, a powerless figurehead. There is no need to protest against a leader whom virtually no one supports. Let her hang herself.

Which—yet again—Lam did.

In another wooden-bureaucrat-faced, tone-deaf speech, the chief executive refused even to consider any of the protesters’ remaining four demands for 1) an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, 2) amnesty for those arrested during the protests, 3) a retraction of the official characterisation of the protests as “riots” and 4) universal suffrage.

As this column has long been contending, granting just one of these demands—the first—would once have gone a long way toward reducing the number and intensity of anti-government rallies that have shaken this city to its core.

October 16 LegCo policy address protest
Chief Executive Carrie Lam enters the Chamber of the Legislative Council Complex in order to deliver her 2019 Policy Address. Photo:

But the policy address was the last chance for this chief executive to make such a concession, and she chose not to do so because, let’s face it, she has handed over the management and control of Hong Kong to an angry, overburdened police force that is close to the end of its tether after months of street battles with protesters.

At this point, due to the Lam administration’s woeful lack of public support, it is the force that is controlling the government rather than the government controlling the force.

Thus Lam fears a mass cop rebellion if she were to agree to any kind of independent inquiry into police actions and tactics over the course of the protests.

The force would also no doubt go apoplectic over an amnesty grant and a retraction of the characterisation of events that have seen them physically attacked by protesters and targeted with petrol bombs as well as, just this past week, a remote-controlled explosive device.

october 6 mong kok
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Of the protesters’ demands, that leaves only universal suffrage—or at least some plan for demonstrable progress toward that end—to consider, but the central government has made it clear this is also off the table.

So, 19 weeks into Hong Kong’s protest nightmare, there is still no clear way out.

Hong Kong’s leader is disrespected and disregarded by all but a small fraction of the 7.4 million people who live here, and its streets continue to churn and burn.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, the Chinese leadership appears content to sit back and let the city destroy itself.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.