- Chinese leaders’ expression of confidence in Lam means that it is unlikely that the PLA or Chinese police will soon be seen on Hong Kong streets
- The attention paid to Hong Kong during the fourth plenum and news that central government officials will come to the city to explain the meeting’s communique should arouse concern
What do Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's meetings with China's top leaders in Shanghai mean for Hong Kong? Viewing those meetings with some scepticism is warranted on several fronts.
First, while President Xi Jinping and Vice-Premier Han Zheng expressed full confidence in Lam and acknowledged the work she and her team had done to resolve the crisis in Hong Kong, no one here really shares that view.
And why should we? Since the spring, we have watched as Lam's extradition bill exploded from a "single spark" into a "prairie fire", even as rational Hongkongers begged her to reconsider. We watched her ignore public opinion polls released in early June that showed just how unpopular the bill was. We watched her stoke the fire on June 10 when she announced that she would reject the concerns of the million protesters who had marched the day before.
Her effort to ram her unpopular bill through the Legislative Council triggered the first serious violence between protesters and the police. Then, after declaring that she would never give in to violence, she did precisely that on June 15 when she put the bill's reading on hold, teaching the protesters that violence pays.
Since then she has abdicated her leadership over the police by doing nothing when Asia's finest began using immense force, nor has she visited injured citizens, particularly those people beaten in Yuen Long. Little surprise that a public opinion poll at the end of October showed that her popularity rating had plunged to only 20.2 points.
And what of the "governance team" around her? Should we, like our leaders in Beijing, have confidence in their abilities to manage this crisis? Hardly. I always wondered why, when Lam presented her draft bill to her own Executive Council, a group whose job it is to guide her, no one shouted: "Whoa! This is political suicide for you and a disaster for Hong Kong."
One must wonder if no one on the Executive Council gave guidance because they had not done their homework and read the draft bill before the meeting. Or were they just afraid to tell her their opinions? Or she just ignored them? In any case, is this the kind of government team we should trust?
Still, these expressions of confidence emanating from the meetings in Shanghai mean that neither the People's Liberation Army nor the mainland police are on their way to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's relationship with China after protests is what really matters
Moreover, as articulated in the Post's editorial on the November 7, Xi and Zheng's comments were "relatively moderate". But the editorial also warned that Beijing "cannot be expected to indefinitely stand by someone who cannot defuse a crisis of their own making" and that "the clock is ticking down to her duty visit next month", by which time she will need to have gotten Hong Kong "moving again".
So, despite the vote of confidence, she has been warned that Beijing's patience has limits and that she had better use the time afforded her to resolve this crisis quickly. She has also been told to follow the guidelines of the fourth plenum recently held in Beijing, which gave extensive attention to the crisis here.
Just to make sure that she knows what they are, Lam has reported that "the central government will arrange for some officials to come and explain it (the communique issued after the fourth plenum) to Hong Kong officials, including myself".
Xi has also very wisely called on Lam to expand her dialogue to a wider array of social "sectors" in Hong Kong. Since late summer, many Hongkongers have called on Lam to mirror French President Emmanuel Macron's strategy of going out into the community to defuse months of angry protests over a fuel tax which turned into a massive anti-government movement. Hongkongers have also called on her to send out members of her governance team.
Like France, Hong Kong needs a grand debate
However, Lam's response has been flaccid at best, a one-off meeting with a group of protesters and no follow-up. Now that she has been "directed" to reach out to society, we should see a bevy of meetings between herself, members of her governance team, and citizens around the city.
But did she really need Xi's blessing to expand the scale of meetings between the government and society? One would have thought that the decision to employ such a strategy would fall within the purview of the chief executive's "high degree of autonomy". The fact that she needed either his approval or his encouragement says legions about her lack of imagination.
On a positive note, Xi appeared to meet a demand of the protesters when he did not label the movement as "riots", instead referring to the protests as "chaos" and "disturbances", which in the Hong Kong legal system could mean lesser sentences for those who have been arrested.
However, we heard nothing about an independent commission of inquiry, or about a new governance team, replete with politicians who really have the confidence of both sides of the confrontation. In fact, we are about to experience more interference during the pending visit by central government officials when they come to Hong Kong to explain the fourth plenum's message to Hong Kong.
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What's worse, the leadership remains convinced that Hong Kong's problems originate from the absence a national security law and too little patriotism in the secondary school curriculum. These are issues that the visiting delegation may put on Lam's plate.
Thus, only by introducing legislation on these two issues, laws that were rejected by society in much milder times " 2003 and 2012 " and moving Hong Kong closer to "one country" and away from "two systems", will Beijing's confidence in Lam be consolidated, even as our confidence in her leadership slides even further.
David Zweig is Professor Emeritus at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Translational China Consulting Limited
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