Lam In Limbo As Tensions Between Hong Kong Protesters, Beijing Intensify
On Sunday, more than 2 million Hong Kongers, more than one-quarter of the city-state’s population, took to the streets in what were the biggest marches in Hong Kong since the dawn of Chinese rule. Even after City Executive Carrie Lam ‘indefinitely’ dropped the hated extradition bill that had catalyzed the protest movement on Saturday, a march planned for Sunday went ahead anyway. It was the biggest march yet, a sign that a popular mandate to oust Lam and secure the release of all of those arrested during the marches – the movement’s two biggest remaining demands – was strong.
Calm returned to the city on Monday, though small bands of students continued to protest, while workers engaged in scattered strikes.
A new day. For those wondering what Hong Kong looks like this morning, here’s the scene on the road outside the city’s parliament via my colleague Maria Kuiper. A few hundred students are keeping the road occupied, no sign of cops. We expect more protests & a strike today pic.twitter.com/1jcYQbDpNs
— Jerome Taylor (@JeromeTaylor) June 16, 2019
Protesters standoff with police while they negotiate to clear roads in Hong Kong early on June 17 pic.twitter.com/PRJjbtSW70
— AFP news agency (@AFP) June 17, 2019
Hong Kong markets rewarded the city executive for withdrawing the extradition bill, with the Hang Seng index outperforming broader Asian benchmarks. Homebuilder shares, which sold off sharply during Wednesday’s violent protests, led the rebound.
Lam issued an apology yesterday that many deemed to be too little, too late. Now, marchers are demanding she resign for not withdrawing the extradition bill sooner.
These standards might seem harsh, but leading Hong Kong has become an increasingly difficult job since Beijing started tightening its grip, according to Bloomberg.
“It’s an impossible job,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University. “You’re sandwiched between Beijing, which keeps giving orders, wants the Hong Kong government to toe the line on everything. Then you have the demands and expectations of Hong Kong society on the other hand.”
Adding an extra twist to the demonstrations against Lam, infamous Hong Kong student protest leader Joshua Wong was released on Monday after serving a month in prison over charges stemming from the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the pro-democracy marches which rocked the city back in 2014.
During interviews given almost immediately after his release from prison, Wong called on Lam to resign, and tweeted for the people of Hong Kong to keep marching until she goes
Hello world and hello freedom. I have just been released from prison. GO HONG KONG!! Withdraw the extradition bill. Carrie Lam step down. Drop all political prosecutions!
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) June 17, 2019
“Carrie Lam, the evil chief executive, should withdraw the extradition amendment.”
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) June 17, 2019
Wong noted that the opposition to Lam had formed a “political consensus,” given that more than one-quarter of the city’s population turned up to march on Sunday.
“It’s really good timing to join the fight for freedom and democracy,” he told CNN after his release. “Five years ago after the end of the Umbrella Movement, we claimed we would be back. Yesterday two million people came to the streets…it shows Hong Kong people realize this is a long term battle.”
“Hong Kong is just a small international city with seven million citizens, but two million people came to the streets, it shows that we have the consensus,” he said. “She has to end her political career.”
Even a former government minister, ex-transport chief Anthony Cheung, called for Lam to observe a one-day deadline for Hong Kong leader to deliver sincere apology and appoint a commission to investigate the police, according to the SCMP.
“The crisis underscores the complete failure of our political system. The central government can no longer expect the problems in Hong Kong to be resolved by focusing on economic and livelihood issues, while avoiding political reform,” said Cheung
However, Lam has retained Beijing’s support, and with it, is attempting to cling to power for now.
“The Central Government fully recognizes the work of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the SAR government, and will continue to firmly support the chief executive and the SAR government in exercising power in accordance with the law,” said Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Lu Kang on Monday.
Though Beijing’s reluctance to pressure the police to crush the protests might seem surprising, what Beijing clearly fears most is the possibility that the marches could spread across the border into Shenzen. Since the 2003 demonstrations, the overriding instruction from Beijing to Hong Kong has been to avoid large public protests that could risk spreading to the mainland, said activist investor David Webb.
This gives the marchers leverage. Though a power vacuum at the top of the city’s hierarchy could also create serious headaches for Beijing.