By Qasim Nauman
Paralysed by seething protesters and intransigent bosses in Beijing, Hong Kong’s government lacks the power and experience to end the unprecedented political crisis in the city, analysts say.
The semi-autonomous international hub has been riven by increasingly violent protests for more than four months, with demonstrators demanding greater democracy and police accountability as violence spirals on all sides.
Yet so far, all the major steps taken by Beijing-backed city leader Carrie Lam have failed to deal a decisive blow against the movement or dissuade protesters from hitting the streets.
Some moves have fanned the flames further.
A ban on face masks during protests, using colonial-era emergency powers, sparked a wave of violence and vandalism that brought much of the city to a standstill earlier this month.
“Hong Kong’s government is suffering from a profound legitimacy problem,” said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute, a policy think-tank.
“It has no democratic mandate but has not been delivering enough benefits for its people to justify the authoritarian path it is taking.”
Like her predecessors, Chief Executive Lam was appointed by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
A life-long bureaucrat, she displays little of a politician’s feel for public opinion. And the Chinese government has refused years of calls for fully free elections.
‘One city, two masters’
China runs Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” model that grants the hub certain liberties but ensures the city’s leadership ultimately answers to Beijing.
In comments leaked last month, Lam said she “serves two masters” – Beijing and the Hong Kong people – and admitted she had been given “very, very, very limited” room to manoeuvre when it came to solving the crisis.
“Lacking legitimacy and the political skills that come with competitive elections, Hong Kong’s governing civil servants are clearly struggling,” Bland told AFP.
There was a stark illustration last week of the political rancour faced by Lam, who currently has historic low approval ratings and has refused to step down, despite saying before her appointment she would do so if she ever lost popular support.
On both Wednesday and Thursday, she was heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers during the delivery and debate of a key policy address while her Facebook Live broadcast was inundated with angry emojis.
“Carrie Lam is now so widely hated that her every public utterance provokes irrational anger, regardless of the content,” wrote Steve Vickers, from SVA risk consultancy, in a report released prior to the speech.
The protests were sparked by huge public anger towards a now-scrapped bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, but have since morphed into a wider pro-democracy movement rooted in fears the city’s unique freedoms are eroding under Beijing’s tightening grip.
China agreed to keep the “one country, two systems” model for 50 years under the terms of Hong Kong’s handover to China at the end of British colonial rule in 1997.
The city was not a democracy under the British either. But concern over the democratic deficit has only increased under Chinese rule, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping ushered in the most authoritarian central government in a generation.
“The freezing of the political system in 1997 ensures there is no popular confidence that concerns and grievances will be addressed by an effective or responsible Hong Kong government, seen widely as a proxy for Beijing,” Jeffrey A. Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent commentary.
“The Hong Kong government lacks the capacity, will, or trust to respond effectively to the demonstrations.”
Beijing has ramped up its rhetorical condemnation of the protests, portraying them as a foreign-funded plot and not a popular expression of rage.
But it has so far avoided direct intervention, a strategy that analysts say is based on trying to limit damage to its international image and hoping the protests will eventually peter out.
Lam and her ministers are thus left with few options beyond ordering the protests to be quelled by police, who are now facing unprecedented levels of public hostility and violence.
And while Lam and Beijing have said some economic gripes have fanned public anger, they have dismissed the idea that Hong Kongers have any legitimate political grievances.
“The real issues are political and cultural,” Nigel Inkster from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a recent video commentary.
“What it boils down to is a fear by Hong Kong of coming under a Chinese system that seems ever more authoritarian, ever more repressive. That, of course, is a problem that Beijing does not know how to address.”
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