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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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