Over the past six months, Hong Kong’s protest-filled streets have been rendered impassable, its universities trashed and its MTR stations firebombed. Yet Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu still has a job in a city where security seems to have slipped entirely out of his hands.

Likewise, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah continues to report daily to her posh Lower Albert Road offices, while any concept of justice in Hong Kong has gone missing along with the nearly 6,000 people, many of them aged 18 or younger, who have been arrested for protest-related offences by a Hong Kong Police Force on steroids.

Most mind-boggling of all, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is still standing after making a confounding series of disastrous decisions, which have plunged Hong Kong into a state of chaos and mayhem and made her the most unpopular CE in the city’s post-handover history.

Carrie Lam. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

The pan-democrats’ triumph in last Sunday’s district council elections, seen by most analysts as a referendum on Lam’s leadership, only served to underscore the fact that she should have stepped aside long ago.

Today’s Hong Kong has become this surreal place where a reviled government and despised police force hang on for dear life while their masters in Beijing seemingly revel in a nightmare of their own making.

Is there an endgame? According to a Reuters report, the Chinese leadership believes they may have found the beginning of a way out by sacking Wang Zhimin, director of the mainland’s Liaison Office in the city.

The report was called false by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office in Hong Kong, but what else would you expect from that well-known font of disinformation?

While the two sources cited in the article are anonymous, the report appears credible.  It quotes one Chinese official who accuses Wang’s office of “mingling with the rich and mainland elites” while remaining “isolated” from the Hong Kong people. True enough.

Wang Zhimin. File photo: GovCN.

It also reports that Beijing has established a crisis command centre in Shenzhen to monitor Hong Kong affairs, but this we already knew.

If indeed the replacement of Wang is the initial move in the central government’s plan to reclaim Hong Kong, this misconceived gambit shows that Chinese leaders, from President Xi Jinping on down, are just as clueless about the city now as they were way back in February, when they either decreed or supported (take your pick) the Lam administration’s ill-fated decision to push for an extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland.

The bill sparked a million-person protest in June—ignored as irrelevant by Lam and her Beijing handlers—which in the following months morphed into increasing spasms of protest violence matched by police aggression and escalation of force.

The extradition bill, belatedly withdrawn, is now forgotten. The protests—and Sunday’s vote—represent a far deeper dissatisfaction with a puppet Hong Kong government that no longer even pretends to stand up for the values and interests of the 7.4 million people who live here.

Lam and her ministers have evinced a frightening willingness to sacrifice the personal freedoms guaranteed under the one-country, two systems arrangement with China. This was supposed to be the magic formula ensuring that Hong Kong would retain its unique East/West identity, rule of law and democratic aspirations at least until 2047, the expiration date for the 1997 handover agreement between Britain and China.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The last six months have demonstrated, however, the brittle fragility of one country, two systems.

If Hong Kong is going to bounce back from its current troubles, Lam and her gang of flunkies need to go—and the sooner, the better. Sure, Wang can go with them, but his departure alone would be meaningless and have a negligible effect on the Hong Kong public, which is much smarter and much harder to cow than the Chinese leadership ever calculated.

Let’s remember that Wang, for some time, has been taking directives from that crisis command centre in Shenzhen, which is, in turn, receiving orders from Beijing.

So while Wang may prove a convenient scapegoat for all that has gone horribly wrong in Hong Kong, most Hongkongers know that this long and winding road of failure and incompetence leads back to the Communist Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai.

It’s been 22 years since the handover, and Chinese leaders are still not anywhere close to figuring out how to deal with Hong Kong.

Are they even trying?

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba 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.