Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam takes her oath in front of Chinese President Xi Jinping on the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

I do not know Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, very well. She worked for my administration when I was governor there. Diligent and well regarded – and Catholic, like many others in the then-colony’s civil service – she had been educated at Hong Kong University and at Cambridge.

When I left in 1997, after sovereignty over the city was returned to China, she was rising through the ranks of the Treasury. In most administrations, the cleverest usually seem to gravitate to the economic departments, looking after the cash. I do not recall ever hearing a bad word about her.

Yet today, Lam finds herself lonely and beleaguered, although it is unclear whether she should take all the blame for what has happened to her. In any case, she must now display real leadership to ease the heightening tensions in the city.

Lam must have known what she was in for when she became chief executive in 2017. She was handpicked through an elaborate system designed to ensure that the Communist regime in Beijing got the leader it wanted. But from 1997 until now, China’s rulers do not seem to have been very good at choosing people for the job. And their effort to dress up the whole process with some democratic trappings convinces no one.

Lam was handpicked through an elaborate system designed to ensure that the Communist regime in Beijing got the leader it wanted. But from 1997 until now, China’s rulers do not seem to have been very good at choosing people for the job. And their effort to dress up the whole process with some democratic trappings convinces no one

Lam’s main opponent for the chief executive job was a former financial secretary, John Tsang, who had a huge lead over her in the opinion polls. But in the Chinese government’s view, Tsang had made the fatal mistake of suggesting talks with the student leaders during and after the Umbrella Movement’s pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014. Fancy that: trying to talk your critics around to your point of view rather than beating them into submission and tossing them into prison.

Since Day 1, therefore, Hong Kong’s people have known that Lam is not her own woman. That is a pity, because she might be good at the job if she were. She is in the post but not in power, instead receiving orders from Beijing or its United Front communist hacks in Hong Kong itself.

The proximate cause of Lam’s woes is her attempt to introduce an extradition law that would destroy the firewall between Hong Kong’s rule of law and the arbitrary exercise of power by the Communist Party of China (CPC) on the mainland. The arguments in support of the bill were pretty threadbare. Most people in Hong Kong – lawyers, business representatives, and ordinary citizens – feared that the law would demolish at a single stroke one of the main pillars of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that was supposed to guarantee the city’s way of life and a high degree of autonomy until 2047.

If Lam did not understand how unpopular the proposed law would be, she certainly does now. On June 9, more than a million people took to the streets in protest; on June 16, about twice that number did. And the protests are continuing. Even China’s rulers have taken note, and have hung Lam out to dry, claiming that the proposed law was not their idea. The chief executive was acting on her own, they suggest.

Who knows? Maybe China simply went along with what locals call a bit of shoe-shining: Lam was simply doing what she knew was expected of her. The new law would obviate China’s need to abduct Hongkongers it does not like, as it has been doing. In any event, before Lam announced her intention to postpone the legislation, she crossed the city’s border to Shenzhen to clear her lines with a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC’s Politburo. This rather embarrassing dash for approval was duly leaked to a pro-Beijing newspaper in the city, just to make clear where the real power lay.

Lam has been badly hurt politically. But Hong Kong needs unifying leadership right now, and the city cannot leave everything to young democracy activists like the brave and articulate Harry Potter-lookalike Joshua Wong. So I have two pieces of advice for Lam, which I hope will not be rejected out of hand simply because they come from me. I do not want Hong Kong to be left in a state of continuing crisis.

First, the chief executive should put citizens’ minds at ease by making it clear that she has no intention of resubmitting the extradition bill later this year or next. She should announce that it is a dead issue, and that she will ask the Hong Kong Bar Association and other lawyers to suggest how future cases that may require rendition of fugitives to Taiwan or China can be dealt with on the basis of the common law.

Second, Lam should announce an open and independent inquiry into police activity during the protests. Everyone could benefit – including the police. After the peace agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, I reorganized the police service there and dealt with issues of maintaining public order. You do not use rubber bullets as though you were on a rabbit shoot, you don’t fire pepper spray into demonstrators’ faces at close quarters, and you do not beat them with batons as they lie on the ground.

Lam should spend a half-hour looking at the same pictures from Hong Kong that the world saw. Any alleged violent behavior by demonstrators could also be examined. Such an inquiry would not cede any moral high ground to critics of the city’s government. Rather, it would give the chief executive a basis on which to talk to the community and bring people together.

As I am sure Lam now recognizes, it is the people of Hong Kong who could be her real friends. She should try to understand their concerns and earn their support. After all, she will never get the same degree of backing from the Communist apparatchiks in Beijing. For them, she will always be disposable.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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