Skip to main content

Hong Kong is in turmoil because its people fear that the entire government apparatus of their nominally self-governing city, long known for its civil liberties and rule of law, is being turned into a transmission belt for the interests of Beijing – where civil liberties and the rule of law are seen as threats to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Hong Kong protesters fear that “one country, two systems” is being transformed into “one country, one system.”

Who agrees with them? One of their main targets, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Last week, in a closed-door meeting with business people that was secretly recorded, Ms. Lam confirmed Hong Kongers’ worst fears, and then some.

In audio made public on Sunday by Reuters, she said, speaking in English, that “if I have a choice, the first thing is to quit.” Beijing chose her for the job, as it has past chief executives. She effectively acknowledged what has long been suspected, which is that things have reached a point where the choice of when she leaves, or how long she remains, will also be Made In China.

More importantly, she said that her lack of decision-making power extends to how Hong Kong’s government responds to protesters, and their legitimate grievances.

“I’m sure a large number of people feel that I do have a solution, that is a political one,” she told her audience. “But I have to tell you that this is where the crux of the matter lies.”

And the crux of the matter, she explained, is that Beijing calls the shots.

“Once an issue has been elevated” to what she called “a national level,” then the Hong Kong government’s role is to take dictation from Beijing. She said that, as Chief Executive, she had to “serve two masters,” and as such, her “political room for manoeuvring is very, very, very limited.”

That’s not how “one country, two systems” was supposed to work. And it is why Hong Kongers are now in the streets, and have been, day after day, for weeks. They are gradually being absorbed into a state most would prefer to remain more distant from. That is what these increasingly desperate demonstrations are about.

The spark that fired the protests was an extradition bill, backed by Ms. Lam and introduced earlier this year in the Hong Kong legislature. It aimed to create a mechanism for Hong Kong people accused of crimes in China to be extradited there. The problem, terrifyingly apparent to anyone in Hong Kong, is that the legal system in mainland China is a fully subsidiary department of a totalitarian state. It routinely uses torture, it charges people with political offences and it always finds guilty those whom the governing authorities wish to condemn.

Hong Kong, in contrast, currently enjoys all the freedoms – speech, religion, conscience, fair trials, peaceful protest – as familiar to Canadians as they are unknown in China. The mere introduction of the bill was enough to send some dissidents fleeing Hong Kong, since it was clear that the legislation would end the city’s status as a safe space for anyone not aligned with Beijing’s way of seeing things.

Ms. Lam continues to insist that the extradition bill was her idea and her doing. That is hard to believe. Momentous change in Hong Kong’s legal relationship with China could not happen without China’s approval, and Ms. Lam’s leaked speech confirms that.

It is possible to believe that Ms. Lam came up with the legislation to please Beijing; it is difficult to believe that, without Beijing’s approval or direction, she drafted the bill, tried to push it through the legislature and, even in the face of the greatest protests in Hong Kong history, still refuses to categorically promise it is dead and will never be resuscitated.

Her own leaked words strongly imply that her choices are somebody else’s script, and Hong Kong’s future is being decided elsewhere. She is the head of government of Hong Kong, but also the ambassador of Beijing.

Which, again, is why Hong Kongers are protesting.

Ms. Lam repeatedly suggested in her speech that finding a solution to those protests is no longer in her hands, which are tied. But if the protests in Hong Kong are now a “national” issue and no “political” solution is possible, who is to blame?

Hong Kong people, for wanting to stop the erosion of “one country, two systems?” Or Beijing, for eroding it?

Hong Kong people, for wanting democracy and self-government? Or Beijing, for insisting that their freedom to choose their own future, to quote Ms. Lam, is to be “very, very, very limited”?

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe