Hong Kong, China – As an estimated two million people took to the streets on Sunday, the people of Hong Kong for the second time appeared to have rendered their leader a lame duck amid calls for her resignation.
Leader Carrie Lam, who was chosen in 2017 by a small committee of electors with the approval of Beijing, has made a series of spectacular political miscalculations in her handling of a legislative bill that would have amended Hong Kong’s extradition laws to allow for criminal renditions to mainland China.
A career bureaucrat who rose through the ranks in the British colonial administration, Lam failed to take into account the deep mistrust in Hong Kong for both China and its legal system.
The bill prompted four major protests between April and June, with one on Wednesday ending with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters.
Two record-breaking marches – on Sunday, June 16, and a week earlier – also drew a wide cross-section of Hong Kong society, including many ordinary people who said they did not regularly attend demonstrations.
Although Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, many residents still value the city’s unique history, civil liberties, and strong rule of law that has attracted so many foreign companies to make Hong Kong their Asian headquarters. They also deeply value Hong Kong’ autonomy from China, which was promised until 2047, but many say it has been under attack in recent years.
“Basically she is in an impossible situation to govern because she has lost the basic trust of the people, respect from the business community and even she has lost the respect of the pro-establishment legislators,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies.
Lam said her immediate resignation was unlikely as there was no clear successor, but her tenure is effectively over as a leader with any clout.
“She will be given a face-saving period, a kind of a grace period. She may be able to serve one to two more years or even serve out the rest of her term which runs to the middle of 2022, but she will then step down definitely. There’s no hope for a second term,” he said.
Beijing’s behind the scenes influence
While it is unclear whether the extradition bill originated in Hong Kong or Beijing, Lam has been the public face of the bill since it was first introduced in February. Lam said on Saturday that she was deeply moved by a murder case last year, when Chan Tong-kai, a 19-year-old Hong Kong man, killed his girlfriend while the pair were on holiday in Taiwan before fleeing home.
Hong Kong and Taiwan‘s government in Taipei do not share a long-term extradition agreement or formal diplomatic relations, so Chan could only be convicted for the crime of money laundering and not murder, according to the South China Morning Post.
The legislative bill would have allowed for Hong Kong to extradite to locations where it lacks a long-term agreement on a case-by-case basis, including Taiwan but also former European colony Macau as well as the mainland.
Beijing for its part has backed Lam’s version of events and said the idea originated in Hong Kong, according to a BBC interview with Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK.
Lam is in a similar predicament as Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive under Chinese rule. Tung’s government caused a similar political crisis when it tried to introduce national security legislation, known in Hong Kong as Article 23, that would have brought the city’s laws in line with the mainland.
About half a million people marched against the bill on July 1, 2003, according to protest organisers, forcing Tung to suspend the bill indefinitely. He resigned several months later, citing health reasons. David Webb, a governance activist and founder of webb-site.com, said a similar situation may be in store for Lam.
“She should resign but I don’t think she will quickly because Beijing won’t let her. When you’re an authoritarian state you have to be seen to be infallible and not make mistakes,” he said.
“So to have someone resign over this would look bad to them too. Unless things escalate, I think there will be some cooling-off period and she will be given an excuse to leave like spending more time with her husband.”
‘No good options’
Lawyer Antony Dapiran, author of the book City of Protest about Hong Kong’s 2014 democracy movement, said Lam sealed her own fate when she pushed on with the extradition bill after the million-person march on June 12.
“Either she’s extremely stupid, or so living in a bubble that she doesn’t know the way the Hong Kong community are feeling, or the third one is her hand is forced and Beijing says ‘sorry you have to go through with this now’,” he said, of her initial decision to carry on with the bill. “None of those three are particularly good options for her.”
Instead, Lam went against public opinion and protest feeling escalated on Wednesday as protesters felt increasingly desperate at the thought of losing their city’s civil liberties and autonomy to China.
Images of riot police firing on protesters that day were carried by major news outlets around the world.
Whether Lam resigns in a few weeks or a few months, the extradition bill is effectively dead, said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo.
In the next year if Lam fails to reintroduce debate, which is unlikely, the bill will expire, Mo said, with Lam’s resignation likely ahead of upcoming legislative elections next year.