Looking for excuses: deadlock in Hong Kong

Just when it looked like Hong Kong was starting to cool – not only thanks to autumn breezes, but falling political temperatures, too – the government’s clumsy handling of a political timebomb looks likely to heat it all up again. 

Joshua Wong, the kid who has become a poster child for the protests, was today prevented from running for a seat on the District Council after the conclusion of a farcical application process in which his returning officer was replaced at the eleventh hour. Read the full story on SCMP.

What comes next? It is hard to say. The only sure thing is that Wong and his supporters will be shouting slogans from outside the tent rather than inside it as the District Council elections draw near. What impact this could have on the result remains to be seen. It is likely to be negligible, as anyone Wong endorses is likely to win in his place. 

This is not to agree with Wong’s views, only to describe the most likely scenario. It is hard to see otherwise, with opinion polls showing the government’s disapproval rating has hit 80%. Anyone standing in opposition – to whatever the government wants to do – is likely to be elected.

Indeed, it seems most likely that Wong’s support base will be re-energized, moderates will be radicalized, and violence levels will rise again. All because of an election to a body that has minuscule political power, whose members almost never appear on Facebook Live.

In the meantime, Hong Kong’s impending economic crisis will surely drag on. Reports are piling up of major international brands abandoning prime rental spaces in Causeway Bay, hotels on the brink of closure, and offices being emptied. Finance Secretary Paul Chan is putting it mildly every time he speaks about the economy’s outlook. 

How could it not be? Without tourism, without mainland visitors, Hong Kong cannot possibly scrape together enough alternative sources of fuel to keep its economy going. How much more clearly does this need to be spelled out? 

Unfortunately, Carrie Lam chose today to come out swinging, saying she believes the coming recession is all the protesters’ fault, and that nothing can be done to address “the root of the problems” unless the protests stop. This follows a weekend that was relatively mild by past standards, and which had sparked speculation again that perhaps the more violent protesters were running out of steam. 

Lam’s stern-faced speech, in which she accused the protesters of “finding excuses” to cause chaos, is an interesting twist in this sad, ongoing political drama, for two reasons.

First, it begs the question of whether Lam believes the “root of the problems” is, in fact, the same root identified by the protesters. She has never acknowledged this previously, preferring to focus on economic – not political – issues. She has promised only to listen, and to work on addressing underlying quality-of-life woes. She has not promised to work on any of the remaining four of the protesters’ five demands. Not directly. Is she now saying that she will, if they stop the protests?

It doesn’t appear so. But that begs a second question. If she hasn’t changed her mind, and  still believes the root causes of the protests are economic, why do the protests have to stop  before the government can “get at it”? Why is Chan only tossing out short-term “relief measures”? The government is perfectly capable of ramming through economic reforms before yum cha, followed by shopping, becomes a Sunday ritual again. 

Think about it: Why does the MTR need to be running smoothly for her team to start taking back land from the tycoons under the Land Resumption Ordinance? Why do protesters have to stop trying to run for District Council elections before she can find a way to house 200,000 people living in subdivided apartments? Why does the establishment of an antitrust commission with real enforcement power need to wait for petrol-bomb incidents to subside? All of these things can be done now, and the details of how they get done should be her focus. Blaming people for the horse that has already bolted – mainland visitation – and won’t likely be coming back for months, if not years, is utterly unhelpful.

Which brings up the final, more ominous question. Is stipulating that these protests must end, in fact, Lam’s way of “finding excuses” not to proceed with much-needed economic reforms?

If so, the road ahead for Hong Kong just turned downhill at a much steeper decline than had been previously anticipated. Let’s see.

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