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Hands tied and paralysed: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam struggles to end crisis

Hands tied and paralysed: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam struggles to end crisis

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam arrives to answer questions from lawmakers regarding her policy address, at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Oct 17, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

HONG KONG: Paralysed by seething protesters and intransigent bosses in Beijing, Hong Kong's government lacks the power and experience to end the unprecedented political crisis in the city, analysts say.

The semi-autonomous international hub has been riven by increasingly violent protests for more than four months, with demonstrators demanding greater democracy and police accountability as violence spirals on all sides.

Some moves have fanned the flames further.

A ban on face masks during protests, using colonial-era emergency powers, sparked a wave of violence and vandalism that brought much of the city to a standstill earlier this month.

"Hong Kong's government is suffering from a profound legitimacy problem," said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute, a policy think-tank.

"It has no democratic mandate but has not been delivering enough benefits for its people to justify the authoritarian path it is taking."

Like her predecessors, Chief Executive Lam was appointed by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

A life-long bureaucrat, she displays little of a politician's feel for public opinion. And the Chinese government has refused years of calls for fully free elections.


China runs Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" model that grants the hub certain liberties but ensures the city's leadership ultimately answers to Beijing.

"Lacking legitimacy and the political skills that come with competitive elections, Hong Kong's governing civil servants are clearly struggling," Bland told AFP.

There was a stark illustration last week of the political rancour faced by Lam, who currently has historic low approval ratings and has refused to step down, despite saying before her appointment she would do so if she ever lost popular support.

On both Wednesday and Thursday, she was heckled by pro-democracy lawmakers during the delivery and debate of a key policy address while her Facebook Live broadcast was inundated with angry emojis.

"Carrie Lam is now so widely hated that her every public utterance provokes irrational anger, regardless of the content," wrote Steve Vickers, from SVA risk consultancy, in a report released prior to the speech.

READ: Hong Kong lawmakers dragged from chamber as leader heckled for second day


The protests were sparked by huge public anger towards a now-scrapped Bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, but have since morphed into a rights movement rooted in fears the city's unique freedoms are eroding under Beijing's tightening grip.

China agreed to keep the "one country, two systems" model for 50 years under the terms of Hong Kong's handover to China at the end of British colonial rule in 1997.

The city was not a democracy under the British either. But concern over the democratic deficit has only increased under Chinese rule.

"The freezing of the political system in 1997 ensures there is no popular confidence that concerns and grievances will be addressed by an effective or responsible Hong Kong government, seen widely as a proxy for Beijing," Jeffrey A Bader, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a recent commentary.

"The Hong Kong government lacks the capacity, will, or trust to respond effectively to the demonstrations."

READ: Hong Kong firms, lacking riot insurance, pick up pieces from protest damage

Commentary: The fight behind closed doors at home in Hong Kong

Beijing has ramped up its rhetorical condemnation of the protests, portraying them as a foreign-funded plot and not a popular expression of rage.

But it has so far avoided direct intervention, a strategy that analysts say is based on trying to limit damage to its international image and hoping the protests will eventually peter out.

Lam and her ministers are thus left with few options beyond ordering the protests to be quelled by police, who are now facing unprecedented levels of public hostility and violence.

Riot police clash with anti-government protesters during a demonstration in Sha Tin district, on China's National Day in Hong Kong on Oct 1, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva)

And while Lam and Beijing have said some economic gripes have fanned public anger, they have dismissed the idea that Hong Kongers have any legitimate political grievances.

"The real issues are political and cultural," Nigel Inkster from the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a recent video commentary.

"What it boils down to is a fear by Hong Kong of coming under a Chinese system that seems ever more authoritarian, ever more repressive. That, of course, is a problem that Beijing does not know how to address."

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

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Source: AFP


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