Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
An estimated one million protesters peacefully taking to the streets of Hong Kong on June 9 – the largest demonstration since the island’s 1997 handover to China – didn’t seem to change Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s mind about the controversial extradition legislation. That bill would allow Hong Kong to extradite foreign nationals, as well as people passing through, to the mainland.
But after police action against protesters in the following days heightened concern, with dozens injured, including protesters and police, Ms. Lam was finally moved to act. After a meeting with a top Chinese official, she made an apology on June 16 and acknowledged “deficiencies in our work.” She announced she would suspend the legislation, and a press release added: "the Chief Executive apologized to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”
That wasn’t enough to pacify an angry population, however – and, in fact, demonstrators returned to the streets Sunday with a substantially bigger turnout than the week before. She didn’t meet the protesters’ demands that she withdraw the legislation, not just suspend it, nor did she step down as Chief Executive.
And while Beijing voiced its respect, understanding and support for Ms. Lam’s decision, it certainly cannot be happy with the four-month-long saga, which has focused world attention on Hong Kong and the distrust of its residents in the mainland’s legal system. China almost never admits making mistakes, but Ms. Lam may be making it difficult for Beijing to show continued understanding and support for her and her policies.
The sheer arrogance and naivety of the Chief Executive has been mind-boggling. Ms. Lam explained that the original impetus for the legislation resulted from a Taiwan murder case in which the suspect returned to Hong Kong, which has no extradition agreement with the island. Hong Kong only has extradition treaties with 20 countries. Ms. Lam said she and her colleagues then decided to kill two birds with one stone: sending the murder suspect to Taiwan while creating a legal framework for extradition with the rest of the world, including mainland China, so that the city doesn’t become “a safe haven for the criminals.”
But Ms. Lam knew, unlike the general public, that Hong Kong and the mainland had been engaged in discussions on a rendition agreement for 20 years. The talks were unproductive because China doesn’t have a sound legal system. While the city enjoys the rule of law, this is not the case in mainland China, where the judicial system is controlled by the Communist Party.
And yet, all of a sudden, she decided to lump the mainland legal system together with some 170 other jurisdictions and said Hong Kong would allow extradition to all those places, without even mentioning China’s policy of “one country, two systems.”
The international fallout has been disastrous. In Taiwan, she has weakened pro-unification candidates running for president in next year’s election and strengthened the incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen. Ms. Lam has also further raised suspicions of China in the United States and brought about the revival of legislation in Washington to monitor Hong Kong. If the city loses U.S. recognition as a separate customs territory, it will lose trade and visa privileges and both China, which derives economic benefits from the city, and Hong Kong will suffer. And this is occurring just as U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping gear up for the G20 meeting in Osaka on June 28 and 29, where they may meet.
Indeed, in Hong Kong, there are already signs of outside investors having second thoughts and of local businesspeople moving their money offshore.
Before assuming office in 2017, Ms. Lam was criticized for being so removed from Hong Kong’s reality that she didn’t even know where to buy toilet paper. Now, it turns out, she doesn’t understand the most basic sentiments of the people she is supposed to represent.
If Ms. Lam doesn’t step down voluntarily, Beijing may have to remove her the way it got rid of two of her predecessors: by “promoting” her to vice-chairmanship of the most important advisory body in Beijing.
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