The idea that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and not Xi Jinping’s Communist Party, were pushing the proposed amendment to the extradition law is hard for many outside observers to accept. Photo: AFP
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

It’s China’s job to restore public trust in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam can’t do it alone

  • The Hong Kong government can’t convince the world its autonomy is intact when it’s assumed Beijing calls the shots
  • Carrie Lam’s government should focus on building bridges in the community, rather than consider mounting any global PR campaign

The cheerful Yorkshire cabby was typically talkative as he bundled away my luggage at York railway station, 200 miles north of London. The clouds threatened rain. His taxi radio blathered about Boris Johnson and Brexit as he asked where I was from. When I told him Hong Kong, the cheer immediately froze: “You’ve been having a bit of bother out there, haven’t you. Looks like your Carrie Lam is in a bit of a mess.”

No matter where I have been in the UK in the past two weeks, everyone I meet knows everything about Hong Kong’s “bit of bother”, is seriously concerned, and has strong opinions. For everyone, the story has been grossly bowdlerised: it is about China changing Hong Kong laws so they can whisk troublemakers away to the mainland if they cause too much bother. It is also taken for granted that whatever is said about “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong’s bureaucrats are no more than puppets dancing to Beijing’s tune.

All attempts on my part to suggest that the story is a bit more complicated than that have been in vain. Suggestions that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor decided for herself to fast-track the extradition bill, and was not prompted by nudges from China, are derisively dismissed. How could I be so naive, they ask.

No money, no flat, no democracy: why young Hong Kong is angry

At the same time, as demonstrations look set to continue through the summer and all practical government business has been paralysed, I hear of proposals – perhaps part of her policy address in three months’ time – to launch a global campaign to bolster international confidence in Hong Kong, and to project a more nuanced understanding of what is going on.

While there can be no doubt that a more nuanced understanding of Hong Kong is urgently needed, alarm bells have gone off in my mind. This must surely be a very bad idea, for two reasons above all others: first, any international campaign that is daily contradicted by black-shirted Hong Kong students in their tens of thousands is going to attract only ridicule.

The sheer size of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill demonstrations has captured international attention. Photo: Sam Tsang

And second – perhaps insurmountably difficult to overcome at present – is that the world does not want to hear from the puppet. Only a calming campaign by the puppet-masters themselves is likely to restore international confidence, right down to my Yorkshire cabby.

So if campaigns are to be waged, they must be waged elsewhere. First, bridges need to be built into the Hong Kong community, and at two very different levels.

Blaming protesters is easy. Restarting dialogue on Hong Kong’s future is harder

First, to understand and respond to the anxieties and discontent of the millions of demonstrators that took to the Hong Kong streets in June. These are ordinary Hong Kong folk that account for a very large proportion of Hong Kong’s population. That Lam has lost the support and confidence of such a huge chunk of Hong Kong society should have alarm bells ringing all the way up to Beijing.

Since the roots of this erosion go back to the 2003 demonstrations over Article 23, it is hard to forgive the successive Hong Kong administrations that have still, 16 years later, failed to build public trust or reduce the palpable anxieties across most of the Hong Kong community. Christine Loh has suggested brainstorming sessions, but I think matters are far graver than this. Serious behavioural psychology needs to be brought to bear.

On a second level, they must understand the passions driving the militant core that has ridden the wave of public unrest, and that brought widely televised violence to the margins of what was in fact a remarkably peaceful series of community protests.

Only when foundations have been laid for progress addressing legitimate public grievances can a credible strategy for international outreach be considered.

The second and most challenging campaign is going to have to be waged by Beijing. In the face of an international consensus that Beijing is pulling the Hong Kong administration’s strings, an international campaign launched by Lam will lack any credibility.

It’s not just Carrie Lam who needs to listen to the people

Some have suggested that a campaign could be launched by Hong Kong business. But given widespread public views that it is the business advisers around Lam (and Beijing’s officials based in Hong Kong) that sit at the heart of her failure to hear or respond to public concerns, it is open to question what credibility such a campaign would have.

Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, has suggested that prominent members of Carrie Lam’s Executive Council need to resign for their failure to read the public mood. Photo: Edmond So

Either way, it is the signals from Beijing that people at home, and overseas, have decided they need to see. Absent such signals, the prevailing international storyline that “strongman” President Xi Jinping is bent on strengthening China’s Communist Party and state-owned enterprises, and in Hong Kong quashing dissidence and undermining the autonomy enshrined in “one country, two systems” will remain alive and well.

There are of course hardliners in Beijing who may currently be arguing that the time has come to get tough with “pampered” Hong Kong, perhaps even to bring out the troops in the Hong Kong garrison. But I don’t believe such voices hold sway. While Beijing’s patience is not indefinite, their best interest is to be seen to calm the waters.

Don’t treat Hong Kong as just another Chinese city

The reality is that China still needs Hong Kong as it builds links with the global economy, so the differences enshrined in the Basic Law, and the trust founded on Hong Kong’s Western-based rule of law are likely to remain critically important for a long time to come.
Hong Kong is also critically important as a liberalising catalyst for the Greater Bay Area, intended to lift the region to global importance over the coming decade. Acting tough on Hong Kong freedoms is hardly the way to attract international interest – and hard cash – into the bay area scheme.

So Beijing needs to talk more openly, act less opaquely, and make clear that the freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law will be respected for the foreseeable future.

Such are the wounds opened over the past few months in Hong Kong that nothing Lam does will bear early fruit. She is right to try to conciliate, but must expect this process to be painfully protracted. And rather than plunge into a big international PR campaign, better to understand and address the concerns of her own community, and to get Beijing to do the same.

Hong Kong people need her to “speak truth to power”, and the sooner she is seen to do this, the sooner people in Hong Kong and around the world will see her without puppet strings attached.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The need to build trust