• Bloomberg


Through months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests last year, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam often became emotional when confronted with accusations that she sold out the former British colony to China.

In appeals to the public, she talked about her personal sacrifices for Hong Kong and called for rebuilding harmony. She took the blame for the “entire unrest” that followed her decision to propose legislation that would’ve allowed extraditions to the mainland, and pledged to listen more before pushing unpopular measures.

Now, almost a year later, Lam is again pushing ahead with politically divisive policies — and she’s no longer expressing concern about the fallout. At a news briefing Tuesday ahead of a meeting of her advisory Executive Council, she said a controversial bill making it illegal to disrespect China’s national anthem would get priority in the city’s legislature.

“I’m not afraid of other’s criticism or smearing,” Lam said. She also said it was necessary for school curriculum reforms that would foster a “national identity.”

Lam’s defiance matches a more aggressive approach by her bosses in Beijing to rein in a pro-democracy camp that mounted its biggest pushback against Chinese rule since Britain returned the city in 1997. The tactics have included renewed clampdowns on protesters, who are starting to become active again after the COVID-19 outbreak prompted the masses to stay indoors.

“The overall impression I have is that Carrie Lam and her team have given up all pretense that they’re in control, and all pretense that they are helping Hong Kong defend ‘one country, two systems,’” said Anson Chan, the city’s former No. 2 official during the transition from British to Chinese rule. “In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, you’d think the government would be refraining from things that could inflame tensions.”

On Wednesday, Lam’s birthday, there were calls to “celebrate” the occasion with pro-democracy rallies in more than a dozen shopping malls across Hong Kong in the afternoon and evening.

The potential for more political unrest also risks further damage to Hong Kong’s economy, which is already mired in a deep recession due to last year’s protests and the pandemic. And things could get worse: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delayed an upcoming report on Hong Kong’s autonomy, which is the basis for special trade privileges that have long helped cement the city’s status as a premier financial center.

Under the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, Washington agreed to treat Hong Kong as fully autonomous for trade and economic matters even after China took control. That means Hong Kong is exempt from Trump’s punitive tariffs on China and enjoys U.S. support for its participation in international bodies like the World Trade Organization.

Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garments industries as a pro-establishment member of Hong Kong’s legislature, didn’t see the national anthem law as particularly controversial and thought Lam would avoid doing anything in the next few months that would provoke the U.S. But still, he said, the recent developments made him worry “a little bit” that the city would lose the U.S. privileges.

“This is part of the key for Hong Kong,” Chung said. “So without it, Hong Kong is just very similar to the other cities in China, and we’re not competitive at all.”

Lam and the pro-Beijing bloc in Hong Kong appear to have one eye on elections for the Legislative Council, which are scheduled for Sept. 6. Two of her predecessors last week formed a pro-establishment group called the “Hong Kong Coalition” to influence public opinion that included some of the city’s wealthiest men.

At the same time, authorities have continued to arrest pro-democracy activists under rules that restrict gatherings to only eight people, including hundreds on Sunday — the most detained in a single day since last year’s protests fizzled out. Lam brushed off accusations that police were targeting demonstrators while ignoring packed bars downtown, saying she would look into any complaints.

China’s more assertive role came after President Xi Jinping in February appointed a former close aide, Xia Baolong, to oversee the city’s affairs from Beijing. Since then, China’s top agencies responsible for the city — the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Liaison Office — have insisted they’re not covered by legal provisions against Beijing’s interference in local affairs, blasting opposition lawmakers for delaying tactics.

Both Chinese authorities and the local government remain deeply unpopular and the opposition won an unprecedented 85 percent of seats in local elections in November. Although a relatively successful effort at containing coronavirus infections has helped lift Lam’s approval rating from the single digits, only 18 percent surveyed by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute Survey last month expressed confidence in her leadership.

Democracy activists see Lam’s move to push the national anthem law as a potential precursor to bringing in national security legislation, which sparked a previous round of street protests in 2003. Prior statements from pro-establishment politicians about Hong Kong students not being sufficiently patriotic have also fueled concerns among activists that the government might revamp the city’s school curriculum to be more pro-China — another proposal previously shelved after mass rallies.

“It’s time for comprehensive review” on whether the curriculum can give students “the ability to know right from wrong, to become responsible citizens, an understanding of national identity and having a global view,” Lam said Tuesday.

In an interview with in the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper published Monday, Lam said the government and schools needed to be a gatekeeper because there were people who deliberately spread falsehoods. “Education cannot be left unguarded, it must be tackled if something went wrong,” she was quoted as saying.

Emily Lau, a former chairwoman for the opposition Democratic Party, said the U.S. could help most by targeting people who are guilty of perpetuating human-rights violations in Hong Kong rather than taking away the city’s special trading and customs status, which “would be game over” for its position as a financial center. Still, she worried that Lam’s actions could revive the unrest that plagued the city last year.

“These laws are all very sensitive and very controversial,” Lau said. “But you negotiate and talk to people to see if there are any compromises. They just want to ram it down everyone’s throat. And that’s very stupid, and very dangerous.”

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