While Beijing chooses to wait for tide to turn in Hong Kong protest crisis, can Carrie Lam afford to follow suit?

South China Morning Post 發布於 2019年10月13日13:10 • Tammy Tam tammy.tam@scmp.com
  • Beijing is perhaps looking for a gradual shift of public sentiment in Hong Kong, from sympathy for violence to a quest for peace and law and order
  • But Chief Executive Carrie Lam cannot afford to wait. Her policy address will play a pivotal role in quelling protests or triggering more unrest
Beijing may not have any quick fix for a defiant Hong Kong, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address will be an immediate test and can be a turning point in quelling the city’s months-long unrest. Photo: Winson Wong

How and when will the protest chaos end in Hong Kong?

That is the billion-dollar question many are asking, and nobody seems to have a clue as to the answer, except to realise that Beijing is not, or never was, in any hurry to put an end to the civil unrest, especially now that speculative October 1 "deadline" has come and gone.

After the grand, 70th anniversary National Day celebrations, as China and the US resumed a new round of trade talks, President Xi Jinping picked India as his first overseas stop.

Despite long-running border disputes, China still needs India as a key partner for its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, while India is looking for economic cooperation as it faces a domestic slowdown. New Delhi could also find a helpful partner in Beijing to help ease tensions with arch-rival Pakistan, particularly over the Kashmir issue.

Give and take is the name of the game in any international relationship building, and Xi has a lot on his plate. But Hong Kong's unprecedented political crisis is not a minor issue, even if a domestic matter in theory " it is having a global impact, including on China-US relations.

Hong Kong's local government, led by Carrie Lam, has failed to control the increasingly violent unrest that was sparked by opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill. Photo: May Tse

So it was nothing surprising for US President Donald Trump to raise the Hong Kong issue when he met visiting Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He after a new round of trade talks between the world's two major powers.

Trump's comments on the city were baffling, though. Hailing what he called "phase one" of a trade deal, the US president claimed it was a "very positive" thing for Hong Kong, too.

"I think that's going to take care of itself," he said of the protests, also noting a "de-escalation".

The disappointment among local protesters was natural, but it provided no relief to Beijing, given Trump's flip-flopping style, and the political reality in that part of the world, where he is facing his own critics. That includes those in Congress, which is highly likely to soon pass a human rights bill aimed at scrutinising Beijing's dealings with Hong Kong.

Where there's a will, there's a way. But where's the will coming from?

Mainland media ignored the entire reference to Hong Kong. The official Xinhua news agency even stopped short of acknowledging any trade deal, and merely cited "substantive progress" in certain areas such as agriculture and financial services, while warning of great "uncertainties" still ahead.

But the fact that Trump did not let the Hong Kong issue become a sticking point for this partial deal can still be telling, although Beijing was cautious not to overreact to Trump's "love fest" narrative.

U.S. President Donald Trump's recent comments on Hong Kong's unrest were baffling. Photo: Bloomberg

Leaders of the two countries will meet in November on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Chile.

One day can be too long when ups and downs in bilateral relations have now become a new normal.

Hong Kong's snowballing social turmoil, further complicated by the US factor, is another new normal for Beijing, too. The waving of the US flag by many protesters troubles Beijing as well.

With so much destruction and hatred among people torn apart by conflicting political ideologies, Beijing has no quick fix for this defiant city when the local government has failed to control the situation.

Beijing's handling of extradition bill withdrawal a hard reality check for Carrie Lam

A high-handed crackdown, including the option of using military force, will be too high a political price to pay, outweighing any possible gain.

Uncertain as China-US relations are, Beijing seems to be looking for a gradual but natural shift of local public sentiment, from sympathy and tolerance for violent protests to a quest for peace and law and order. It appears to be allowing more time to assess the pros and cons, while spinning the Hong Kong situation into a boost for patriotism across the border.

But waiting is not something that embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor can afford to do. Her policy address on Wednesday will be an immediate test and can be a turning point " only, for better or worse?

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