When Carrie Lam became Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, she pledged to heal a society divided by the umbrella protests three years earlier. But with her tenure coming to an end and former police officer and security chief John Lee taking the reins, the China-controlled territory seems more fractured than ever.
The freest city in Asia that has attracted international financial institutions, news outlets, artists, civil society and even welcomed foreign judges now increasingly resembles mainland China.
After years of growth, Hong Kong’s population has shrunk at a record pace over the past two years, fueled by the political crackdown and harsh but ineffective measures to contain COVID-19.
Lam leaves office with a net approval score of 33.4 percent, according to an April survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, with only 16 percent of people saying they are satisfied with the current political situation and nine percent with the economy. .
Hong Kong’s downward slump — and Lam’s likely legacy — can be traced to a key event in 2019 when she attempted to change the city’s extradition laws. The plan would have allowed residents to be extradited to China to face charges, where criminal suspects face a 99 percent conviction rate. At the time, Lam said the plan would close the loopholes in the city’s extradition law. Instead, she sparked the biggest protests ever in Hong Kong.
Millions marched against the proposals, but when Lam’s government failed to respond and police used tougher-handed tactics, the movement began calling for democratic reforms. Clashes between protesters and police intensified, culminating in the prolonged siege of the Polytechnic University in November 2019.
The pandemic — and the restrictive laws imposed to contain even the tiniest outbreak — favored protests in 2020, but later that year Beijing imposed the broadly worded national security law, which it said was necessary to address issues such as “terrorism ” to deal with. ‘ and ‘conspiracy with foreign powers’, but effectively silenced any criticism.
Relapse or inevitable?
When China took Hong Kong back from the British in 1997, it committed itself to what it called “one country, two systems,” a framework within which the area could preserve its way of life and freedoms for at least 50 years.
While Hong Kong had already changed a lot when Lam took over as chief executive, observers say the decline over the past two years was not inevitable.
Before the 2019 protests, Chinese President Xi Jinping had made it clear that he had big plans for Hong Kong. He wanted to integrate the city into the “Greater Bay Area” megalopolis of southern China, but he hadn’t pushed for major changes yet, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.
Xi only sprang into action when he saw what he believed to be an “open insurgency” going on in Hong Kong.
“The protests wouldn’t have happened without Lam rushing through the extradition bill and doing it very badly,” Tsang said by email. “Many, if not most of the changes in [Hong Kong] would come since 2020, but they would not have been enacted and imposed as they have been without Lam’s particularly bad policy of policy,” such as the extradition bill.
Lokman Tsui, an activist and fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, agrees.
“Looking back, I think the critical moment was the extradition bill, and it wasn’t inevitable at all. It was the hubris of the Hong Kong government, by Carrie Lam, that got us where we are today,” he told Al Jazeera. “The extradition bill was apparently not something Beijing was pushing for, but that Carrie Lam was trying to push through on her own initiative because she wanted to do well with Beijing.”
Even in the early days of the protests, when first one and then two million took to the streets in successive weekends, Tsui said the director could still have chosen a different path — as her predecessors had done despite public opposition.
In 2003, after a protest by 500,000 Hong Kongers, the government shelved then-planned national security legislation. The government also withdrew from a 2012 plan to add pro-Chinese “moral and national education” classes to the school curriculum after students and parents protested.
Lam may have hoped that the anti-extradition protests would go the way of the Umbrella Movement. In 2014, thousands of protesters had made headlines when they occupied the central business district of the island of Hong Kong to demand universal suffrage, but despite a strong start, the protests eventually ended.
What Lam failed to see — like many leaders in Hong Kong before her — was that every time protesters had returned home in the past, their discontent hadn’t gone away, Citizen Lab’s Tsui said. Instead, the feeling kicked in, he said, as Hong Kongers saw a widening gap between their interests and those of the Beijing-approved government.
“What the lesson of history teaches you is basically acting in temporal compliance — people seem to obey or be obedient — but you lose trust, you lose good faith in government, and so on,” Tsui said.
Reading tea leaves
As a career official appointed to her posts, observers say the odds against Lam were always high.
She was also placed in the “impossible” job faced by all chief executives of both Beijing and Hong Kong, she also lacked key political skills that leaders in democracies typically learn over multiple election cycles.
Much of this stemmed from Hong Kong’s “fundamental contradiction,” says Ben Bland, author of Generation HK and director of the Southeast Asia program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, which sees Hong Kong as not being both a democratic city and part of it. the largest authoritarian state in the world.
In the years leading up to the 2019 protests, “troops bubbled up” as Hong Kongers and the Chinese government grew increasingly frustrated with each other, he said.
Missing these signs, Lam failed to realize that a wave of Hong Kong nationalism had begun to spread through the younger generation in the years following the Umbrella Movement. Many began to appreciate their city’s unique cultural and political heritage, while more radical Hong Kongers wanted to push for greater autonomy and even independence.
Complaint-specific protests also began to evolve into protests against the entire political system, said Michael C Davis, a global fellow at the Wilson Center in the United States, as protesters began to associate problem-based issues with their lack of representation in government.
“It is always the street that guards Hong Kong’s autonomy, not these officials. [Chief Executives] Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang and Leung Chun-ying are all guilty of this,” Davis said. “In some ways, Carrie Lam seems to be the most blatant player in this regard, consistently pushing things past public objections. The impression left then was that she was, in fact, taking instructions from Beijing.”
Bland also said that at the time, many officials in Hong Kong in 2019 seemed to have “no idea” why protesters were on the streets, he said, and what could be done to reconcile with them.
“They just didn’t want to see what was happening on the ground,” he told Al Jazeera. “State officials tend to see protesters as ‘Oh, they’re just spoiled kids,’ and there was that public story. I think they ended up believing things they said in public, which was a big deal. “
But Lam didn’t just alienate the protesting public, said Anna Kwok, the strategy and campaign director for the Hong Kong Democracy Council in the US.
“The Movement of 2019 and the Road [Lam] dealt with it, raising many questions from the Beijing government and even the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong,” she said, as many feared they could lose their seats in the then semi-democratic local elections.
The protests also put Hong Kong and Beijing in the spotlight, as local and international media spent months covering the events in great detail.
Despite widespread public criticism, Lam has always publicly maintained that she was only trying to “fix legal loopholes” with her account and has complained about the difficulty the protests caused in her personal life, including being unable to provide banking services. to use after the US sanctioned her.
Private revealed a leaked audio recording in 2019 that she would have rather quit than serve out her term as CEO.
After Sunday she finally gets the chance to rest.