Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 5 September 2019


By Yi-Zheng Lian

Mr. Lian is a former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal and a contributing Opinion writer.

At long last, on Wednesday Carrie Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, announced, along with a few other largely symbolic measures, the formal withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill that set off a summer of protests. But this is a totally unacceptable response to the crisis facing the city. And no less than her earlier steadfast refusal to concede anything to the protesters, the gesture — so minor and coming so late — only confirms what many of us suspected are the interests she really serves.

Far more revealing than what she just announced publicly are statements she recently made in private. Last week, in the midst of intensifying police brutality against the protesters, Mrs. Lam met with a privileged group of businesspeople and told them, off the record, that she would quit “if I have a choice.” Her talk was recorded on the sly, leaked and disclosed on Monday. On Tuesday, she told journalists that she had never tendered her resignation to Beijing and had not considered doing so.

Maybe she thought she was showing a softer side at that private meeting last week — her human face, if you will — but the performance was shabby, a mixed bag of practiced remorse and the callousness typical of the ruling class. And more.

Now was no time for self-pity, she said, and yet she went on to lament, choking up at times, that she no longer dared to go out for shopping or to get her hair done, for fear of being met by throngs of young people in black T-shirts and black masks (black is the protesters’ preferred color). All this she said even as hundreds of police officers in full riot gear have been let loose these days, bashing the skulls and breaking the teeth of protesters and innocent bystanders alike, pulling off the underwear of a young woman they arrested and deliberately crushing hands under their boots. The chief executive can’t visit her coiffeur? Big deal.

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Mrs. Lam is heard saying in the recording, “for a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable.” Quite so. Especially since “havoc” is a gross euphemism for what Mrs. Lam has done. She has undermined constitutional guarantees and political freedoms. She has politicized what was once a professional police force and turned it into a tool of oppression that acts at the behest of Beijing. She has given the police unheard-of license to make arrests in hospitals and bully patients, and to mistreat — my euphemism this time — protesters and reporters at the front lines. The special governance system that Beijing had promised would govern Hong Kong and keep it distinct from the mainland until at least 2047 has been thoroughly trampled.

Yet it is to a small group of businesspeople — and presumably a very select bunch of those — that Mrs. Lam made “a plea to you for your forgiveness.” But forgiveness for what, from them? For allowing the protesters to close down the airport for a couple of days? For sending a little tremor through the real estate market, still sky-high, which has made developers so very rich for so very long? For knocking some 5,000 points off the Hang Seng Index since May? For hurting the city’s big corporate families?

Mrs. Lam has yet to properly ask for the forgiveness of Hong Kongers. (In June, she said, “I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” but then flatly refused to do anything they asked.) In her talk to the business group, she recited almost verbatim from the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution, that in her capacity as chief executive she is required to serve two masters: the central government in Beijing and the people of Hong Kong. In fact, she seems to be serving only Beijing and a small business elite in Hong Kong.

Only, other swaths of the business sector have had little patience for Mrs. Lam’s intransigence. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce pointedly asked her to make serious concessions toward the protesters in late July.

And so finally on Wednesday, Mrs. Lam announced the formal withdrawal of a bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, one of five of the protesters’ demands. This is ridiculous on her part, after holding out all summer as she has while protesters have been tear-gassed, maimed and subjected to cruel treatment by the police — and while much of the city’s population has supported them, turning up for marches in the hundreds of thousands. At this stage, nothing short of the government’s addressing the protesters’ fifth, and most sweeping, demand — real universal suffrage for both executive and legislative elections — can be enough. Some protesters have already declared on the online forum LIHKG, “Five Demands. Not One Less.”

Whatever the protesters’ next response to Wednesday’s announcements, and however the government then follows up, Mrs. Lam’s off-the-record talk with the business group last week holds hints of what may come in the medium term.

She said that she had gotten clear hints from Beijing that no matter what happened in the streets of Hong Kong, China would not send in the People’s Liberation Army; Beijing just wouldn’t risk damaging its “international profile,” which took so long to build, as “not only a big economy, but a big, responsible economy.” There is unintended mercy in cold calculus, apparently.

But this also means, in the words of Mrs. Lam, that the authorities in Beijing are “willing to play it long,” and “so you have no short-term solution.” Put another way: China’s strategy is essentially to play a game of attrition, conceding as little as possible while expecting the Hong Kong government and the local police to hold out longer than the protesters, despite the risk of imposing significant costs on the city in the meantime.

“You lose tourism, economy, you lose your IPOs and so on, but you can’t do much about it,” Mrs. Lam is heard warning the business group. Then she tries to sound reassuring: “But after everything has been settled, the country will be there to help, with maybe positive measures, especially in the Greater Bay Area.”

Yet will businesspeople just sit still and wait, especially in a financial center like Hong Kong, where being nimble and making quick money are the highest business virtues? And the opposition movement is not stupid: It is trying to prolong the conflict, hoping to sap the economy enough that the business sector will start clamoring for a comprehensive political solution.

On Tuesday, a nameless pro-independence group claiming to be active on the front lines of the protests — and responsible for knifing an off-duty policeman this weekend — issued a manifesto. (Here is the original in Cantonese; here is an adequate summary in English.) The document criticizes the so-called courageous-militant arm of the resistance movement as being too costly in human terms: Close to 1,000 protesters have already been arrested. But it also argues that so-called peaceful-rational camp within the movement is too costly in financial terms: Millions of dollars have been spent on political advertisements in Western media. And so this nameless group proposes a more sustainable strategy: a low-cost and high-risk effort that would pinpoint its use of violence, targeting individual police officers. That, it argues, could quickly demoralize the entire force, especially since many officers joined the force for job security and good pay.

First reactions to the manifesto online were conflicted, even among protesters. Would such as extreme approach be tolerated, if only tacitly, by the mainstream resistance?

Just maybe, especially considering that the courageous-militant response to mounting police brutality, which was unimaginable just three months ago, is now accepted, even celebrated at times. Beijing isn’t the only one playing a game of attrition in Hong Kong.

Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.

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