Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Hong Kong's Carrie Lam: "The Leader Who Killed Her City"

From the Atlantic, June 18
The sunny, humid Saturday should have been a day of cautious relaxation in Hong Kong. The city had not tallied a new case of COVID-19 in a week, and people were returning to markets, restaurants, and the popular hiking trails that traverse its sylvan hills.

But by that afternoon, social-media posts and alerts on messaging apps began to spread, initially in frantic, disjointed bits, raising alarm—not about new coronavirus infections, but about the movements of the Hong Kong police. Officers, it would become clear, were making their way across the city, arresting prodemocracy figures.

In a coordinated sweep that day, April 18, police rounded up 15 people, spanning generations and ideologies: Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s octogenarian “godfather of democracy,” was greeted by seven officers at his door; the media tycoon Jimmy Lai was walked from his home, his glasses slipping from the bridge of his nose onto his blue surgical mask; and Margaret Ng, a veteran lawyer, made her way into a police station clutching in her arms a copy of the book, China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?

The arrests, police later explained, stemmed from the individuals having taken part in unauthorized marches held in August and October 2019, at the height of the territory’s prodemocracy protests, a movement sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Months of enormous, and sometimes violent, demonstrations in Hong Kong laid bare the fear and despondency of an identity and way of life being forcibly pulled away, as well as the rage toward a government and its overlords in Beijing who were unwilling to listen or compromise. Along the way, as the relationship between residents and the police fractured, Hong Kong’s population grew familiar with the choking sting that follows the explosion of tear-gas canisters, and the severity of bruising inflicted by rubber bullets.

The pandemic put the protests on hold as the city battened down to wait out the virus. The territory, gleaning lessons from the SARS outbreak more than a decade ago, contained the spread enviably as deaths mounted elsewhere across the globe. But unlike other leaders, who saw their political fortunes rise on their deft handlings of the outbreak, Hong Kong’s success did little to help its chief executive, Carrie Lam. Residents continued to seethe as pro-Beijing lawmakers and mainland officials blatantly disregarded norms and expedited China’s chokehold on the city while the world largely turned its attention to the public-health crisis. The flurry of activity came to a stunning culmination this May, when Beijing announced that it would circumvent the territory’s legislature to force a national-security law on Hong Kong. The law has not been fully detailed but will target acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign interference in the city. The move ended 23 years of resistance to such regulations, and proved hollow the “one country, two systems” framework under which the city is supposed to be run until 2047.

Officials in Beijing nowadays speak of Hong Kong in terms normally reserved for Xinjiang and Tibet, describing it as a restive city whose traitorous foreign-backed residents seek independence, language parroted by Lam herself. (Lam has said that she has no evidence of these hidden hands from abroad, while polling shows that only a small but boisterous minority of people in Hong Kong favor independence.)

Lam’s hard-charging attempt to sideline her own people to please her bosses in Beijing has had the opposite effect. The extradition bill, legislation pushed by Lam herself, catastrophically backfired, to the extent that she and her staff now appear entirely cut out of the loop by mainland officials who have taken the reins of Hong Kong’s most important policy-making decisions. Her administration has been unable to answer even the most basic questions about the national-security law, desperately trying to reassure people that things will be fine despite the litany of warning signs to the contrary. Lam, in recent days, has pivoted from the pleasantries, referring to those who oppose the law as “enemies of the people.”

Along the way, she has emerged as the perfect tool for Beijing: a convenient shield for those actually in charge, and so despised by her people that most have entirely given up on her.
Lam is already the most unpopular and calamitous leader in Hong Kong’s modern history, her decisions and failures of governance having borne consequences that are global in reach. Though yet to fully come into focus, even a truncated list of the repercussions of her leadership is staggering for its breadth and the speed at which they have unfolded.

The past year of protests, and some 9,000 arrests stemming from the demonstrations—while telling figures of street-level unrest—do not begin to capture the full fallout. Even before the pandemic struck, Hong Kong had sunk into a recession. The city’s police force, once lionized in big-screen films, is now widely viewed as a marauding band of occupying enforcers, free to act with impunity. The United Nations—as well as rights groups, business associations, and the city’s legal community—is calling for an inquiry into their actions, though it will likely never materialize. Hong Kong has slipped in the global business rankings prized by Lam. In local elections last year, seen as a referendum on her handling of the protests, prodemocracy candidates made historic gains, while the scales of Taiwan’s election were also tipped in favor of the Beijing-skeptic incumbent due to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. The United States no longer believes the city to be highly autonomous from China, and Britain is overhauling its immigration policies to accommodate Hong Kongers. Even LeBron James and the NBA, video-game developers, and e-sports stars have not escaped the cascading ramifications of Lam’s mistakes.

Pundits long speculated that Hong Kong would meet its demise if the People’s Liberation Army came out of its barracks, but that no longer seems necessary. History will perhaps judge Lam as the leader who killed her city without needing any tanks.

Because she is not directly elected, Lam, who is 63, does not carry a popular mandate, instead serving as Beijing’s conduit. Through her decades-long career in government, Lam has excelled at pleasing those above her, swiftly transitioning from a hardworking colonial subject during British rule to China’s loyal apparatchik. (Lam’s office declined to comment for this story.)
This transformation has been so all-encompassing that someone who has been friendly with Lam for almost two decades and worked closely with her said they would struggle to describe Lam’s thinking, mindset, or behavior today—she has become so wholly unrecognizable. From the symbolic shedding of her “Margaret Thatcher–like suits” in favor of traditional Chinese cheongsams after the British left in 1997, she has now styled herself after a “very mainland-Chinese bureaucrat,” this person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“Carrie Lam embraces this very valueless mindset,” they told me of Lam’s ability to seemingly serve those in power without question, “which is actually a colonial legacy.”....