Carrie Lam

Jailing of Hong Kong student leaders marks the end of Carrie Lam’s honeymoon with the opposition

Regina Ip says the new chief executive’s more conciliatory style of governance will come up short when the legislature resumes business in October

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 9:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 6:55pm

A few weeks ago, it was commonly agreed that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s new administration had got off to a good start. With a more conciliatory and inclusive style of governance, Lam managed to achieve a much smoother reception at her first meeting in the Legislative Council than her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying.

The first controversy broke out over the appointment of Dr Christine Choi Yuk-lin, a pro-China headmistress, as undersecretary for education. Despite a barrage of objections from the pro-democracy camp, the government appeared to have got over that storm relatively unscathed.

The unveiling of the “co-location” plan at the West Kowloon terminus of the high-speed rail link to mainland China provided another lightning rod for attacks on the government, for undermining Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy under “one country, two systems”, and damaging the rule of law. However, thus far, there appears to be more popular support for travel convenience to mainland China than fears about the stationing of mainland law enforcement officers in West Kowloon. After all, large numbers of Hong Kong people do travel to the mainland every day for work or other purposes.

As the anti-co-location campaign struggles to take hold, the political atmosphere has changed radically over the past 10 days. The Court of Appeal handed down jail sentences for three young pro-democracy activists convicted of being involved in unlawful public gatherings outside the government headquarters in September 2014.

Watch: Pro-democracy student leaders jailed for storming government buildings

The trio tried to enter the “Civic Square” at the government’s headquarters illegally and incited others to follow suit. Their actions triggered large-scale protests and occupation of many parts of the city for 79 days.

The unexpected jailing of the three young offenders – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Alex Chow Yong-kang and Nathan Law Kwun-chung – sent shock waves through pro-democracy circles, and set off a protest by supporters on August 20. The police estimated that more than 20,000 people took part in the peaceful march, the largest since the demise of “Occupy Central” in December 2014.

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-kueng, being the applicant for the review of sentences, became the chief target of the sympathisers’ wrath. Carrie Lam unavoidably took some flak, too. Criminal proceedings against several other activists, who had taken part in various protests since the onset of Occupy Central, including two legislators from the pan-democratic camp, are also pending.

Judiciary in the dock: jailing of student activists opens door to debate

Much can be said in support of the argument that those who broke the law and disrupted public order ought to be brought to justice. The judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of the three young offenders forcefully pointed out the importance of meting out sentences which have sufficient deterrent effect. Many in our society would also welcome punishment for lawbreakers who inflicted suffering on others, in total disregard of other people’s rights and freedoms.

Yet the debate about crime and punishment is only one dimension of the many conflicts which have torn asunder our society since 2014, dividing it into the establishment (“blue”) and the anti-establishment (“yellow”) camps. The anti-establishment forces have been in abeyance on the election of a new chief executive who has vowed to part company with the unpopular ways of the previous leader. The harsh reality of the law catching up with the past has dashed hopes for an easy reconciliation in the near future.

The anti-establishment forces are sure to raise their ugly head again when Legco returns to business in October. Many in the pro-democracy camp would see a need to fight, if for no other reason than for their own survival. To garner greater public support, they would amp up the volume of their attacks on government, shattering whatever semblance of peace that has been stitched together since July 1.

In the past month, legislator Chan Kin-por, chairman of Legco’s Finance Committee, has declared his wish for a streamlining of the legislature’s rules of procedure to facilitate more efficient handling of the government’s funding requests. Such changes are bound to take away some, if not all, of the pan-democratic camp’s powers of opposition. If the pro-government camp in Legco presses ahead with such changes on the resumption of business in October, the fight between the two camps would further poison the chances of a rational dialogue between the government and the opposition.

Thus, like it or not, Lam’s honeymoon with the opposition is likely to end soon, and abruptly. She will make full use of the abundant resources at her disposal to announce measures that would improve the livelihood of the people in her October policy address. And she will receive full support from the central government. But the conflicts in our society – ideological, political and cultural – are too deep-rooted for the differences to be resolved purely by sound administrative measures or support from Beijing. Lam will have to work even harder. Above all, she must establish her moral high ground and speak for the rational, silent majority in upcoming debates.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party