Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

The horrifying images coming out of Hong Kong make it hard to believe that China’s leaders were once actually pretty popular there. I remember shortly after the 1997 handover that premier Wen Jiabao was actually applauded as he toured a shopping mall.

Meanwhile, outside the mall, tens of thousands of people were marching in protest against government moves to limit free speech. Then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was pilloried but no mention was made of China’s leaders.

Public opinion polls at that time showed that Hong Kong people had more respect for the Chinese leaders than they did for their own. Of course, this was the era of “moderate” leaders such as Zhu Rongji, who projected a much less menacing image than hardline Xi Jinping.

It was a sign of just how low official relations have deteriorated that 20 years later in 2016 when Zhang Dejiang, chairman of he National People’s Congress Standing Committee, came to Hong Kong simply to give a lecture, it required the government to deploy 6,000 policemen in riot gear to provide security.

If Hong Kong’s people back then liked the Chinese leaders, they disdained heir own native leaders. None of the four people who have served as chief executive, the office that replaced the British governor, have ever earned Hongkongers’ love and respect.

It was a sign of just how low official relations have deteriorated that in 2016 when Zhang Dejiang, chairman of he National People’s Congress Standing Committee, came to Hong Kong simply to give a lecture, it required the government to deploy 6,000 policemen in riot gear to provide security

The first native chief executive, Tung, was dismissed as an amiable bumbler and was eased out of office by Beijing. He was a decent man unfortunately out of his depth. His successor, Donald Tsang, was considered much more competent, having worked his way to the top as a career civil servant, but his administration was marred by scandals..

The third chief, property magnate Leung Chun-ying (commonly known as C Y Leung), never could overcome the feeling that his first loyalty was to Beijing, not Hong Kong.

That brings us to Carrie Lam, the second chief executive chosen from the ranks of top civil servants.

Lam always insists that she initiated the new law to permit extradition of Hong Kong people to the mainland y herself and was not pressured into tabling the bill by the central government. I believe her.

The extradition law was just the kind of thing that would bubble up through the bureaucracy. There is a deficiency in the current law? Then we have to fix it would be the first thing that would appeal to the civil-service mentality.

None of the civil servants, however, no mater how high would have thought twice about of the political implications of the proposed legislation. And Carrie Lam is a stone-cold bureaucrat.

That’s not to say that she hasn’t a heart. It has been reported that she was partly moved to act after receiving several poignant letters from the parents of an alleged murder victim by a boyfriend then living in Taiwan.

Beijing, of course, was happy to get behind the proposed legislation once it was initiated. Why not; it was handed to them on a platter. But I doubt that it was part of a concerted plan to overturn the “one country, two systems” principle or turn Hong Kong into “just another Chinese city.”

It’s Hong Kong’s curse that none of its post-1997 leaders, not Tung, not Tsang, not C Y, and now not Lam, has been up to the task of governing this restless city, even though, in many cases, they were and are exceedingly smart and capable.

To be sure, trying to serve two masters – Beijing and Hong Kong – is an enormous task, maybe an impossible task. But it does require leaders with more political dexterity than has been shown so far.

So far, Hong Kong’s executives have been drawn from two pools: the property market (Tung, C Y) and the civil service (Tsang, Lam). Neither of these leadership pools has shown that they are incubators of effective leaders of the Hong Kong government.

That’s why every one of them has blundered into a crisis during his or her tenure. For Tung it was a proposed law to codify sedition; for Tsang it was a clumsy attempt to encourage Chinese language schools. For C Y it was the “umbrella” democracy movement.

And now Lam has blundered into the mother of all crises.

It is a common misunderstanding that Hong Kong is apolitical, interested only in making money. In fact Hong Kong is one of the most polarized jurisdictions in the world, as shown in various metrics, such as signing petitions or marching in a political rallies.

Carrie Lam bowed to reality over the weekend and announced that the extradition bill had been suspended indefinitely. That will not be enough to clear the streets of protesters demanding that the bill be withdrawn entirely.

In 2003 the Hong Kong government pulled legislation codifying provisions of the Basic Law aimed at preventing sedition in the face of massive protests. Seventeen years later no administration has sought to revive them. That may be changing.

President Xi Jinping told a delegation of visiting officials from Hong Kong early this year to do their duty under the basic charter to implement national security laws against sedition, subversion and treason. Get ready for the next crisis.

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