Chaos as Hong Kong lawmakers thwart leader’s annual address

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam barely got a few words out yesterday before pro-democracy lawmakers forced her to stop talking.
Calling her “the mother of the mafia police,” yelling pro-democracy lawmakers twice forced Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to stop delivering a speech laying out her policy objectives Wednesday and then clamored for her resignation in chaotic scenes that caused her to walk out of the legislature.
Lam was able to deliver the annual address more than an hour later by video, but the hostile reception inside the Legislative Council marked a slap in the face for the embattled chief executive grappling with anti-government protests now in their fifth month.
When Lam started delivering the speech, she was shouted down by chanting pro-democracy lawmakers who held aloft placards showing her waving with hands colored blood-red. They also used a projector to light up Lam’s face and the wall behind her with protesters’ key demands.
Lam left the chamber and then came back about 20 minutes later to try again, only to be met with further fury. One legislator brandishing a placard climbed onto a desk. Again, the council president stopped the session and Lam left. One lawmaker wearing a paper mask showing the face of Chinese President Xi Jinping tossed a placard as Lam walked out.
Finally, 75 minutes after the previously scheduled start of the lengthy address, Lam delivered it via video link, with China’s yellow-starred red flag to her right and Hong Kong’s flag on her left.
In a subsequent news conference, Lam again made clear that she wouldn’t resign and insisted there has been no erosion “whatsoever” of Hong Kong’s freedoms. “Hong Kong is still a very free society,” she said.
Even before Lam delivered her speech, one of the protesting lawmakers, Claudia Mo, dismissed it as a “shame and a sham” and said the chief executive had lost all authority.
“She is just a puppet on strings, being played by Beijing,” Mo said at an impromptu news conference with other lawmakers outside the chamber after they successfully thwarted Lam’s address there.
“If she fails to respond to the five demands, it would be a fantasy to expect normal business to resume in the Legislative Council,” said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker who participated in the disruption. “All of these livelihood issues, she could have introduced them a year ago. She’s trying to compete for popularity. She’s trying to win over people’s hearts. But this is doomed to fail without any legitimacy.”
The pro-democracy bloc only comprises about a third of lawmakers, but yesterday’s display showed they have the ability to shut down any debate on major economic initiatives even if they don’t have the votes. That spells even more trouble ahead for an economy sliding into recession as protests against Beijing’s grip over the city grow increasingly violent.
In her address, Lam pledged to make housing more affordable and promised cash handouts for students, many of whom have been on the front lines of demonstrations that have spurred regular clashes with police over the past four months. They were among some 200 initiatives aimed at easing some of the discontent that has fueled the protests.
But she’ll have a hard time implementing them as well as a $2.4 billion stimulus package announced in August without the support of lawmakers.
“Many of these measures cannot be implemented without funding approval from the Legislative Council,” James Lau, acting Financial Secretary, said in an emailed statement yesterday, referring to the stimulus. A backlog of projects worth more than HKD70 billion ($8.9 billion) and involving about 14,000 jobs is awaiting approval by the Finance Committee, Lau said.
More than 50 legislative proposals are currently awaiting action, according to an Oct. 16 meeting agenda. While some deal with mundane administrative issues – fees on karaoke parlors and bus route schedules – others include deliberations on a face-mask ban implemented under a colonial-era emergency law and the official withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the protests.
“We’ve already suffered from delays in many, many discussions,” said Iris Pang, economist with ING Bank NV in Hong Kong. “I have no idea when those policies in the policy address can really be discussed or passed in the Legislative Council. This is a big question mark I think every Hong Kong person has in mind now.”
Regina Ip, a pro-establishment lawmaker, said that it was still possible to push things through despite the “disgraceful” interruption by opposition lawmakers on Wednesday. Certain measures announced in the policy address that don’t require new funding – including relaxed mortgage rules for first-time home buyers and land requisition for new housing – could be implemented without lawmaker approval, she said.
The dramatic events in Hong Kong’s legislature came after some of the most chaotic protests in Hong Kong’s modern history. Violence escalated significantly at rallies to mark China’s Oct. 1st National Day and on the weekend following Lam’s decision to invoke a colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance last used in 1967.
Lam said yesterday the violence had damaged Hong Kong’s reputation and appealed for calm without making any new proposals. She again repeated her opposition to the remaining demands, ruling out an amnesty for protesters, an independent inquiry and the ability for Hong Kongers to pick and elect their own leaders.
Part of her problem is that the current impasse requires a political solution rather than economic measures, said Chung Kim Wah, director of the Centre for Social Policy studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“This kind of economic approach to try to pacify young people isn’t going to be effective right now because Hong Kong people are angry,” he said. “If we don’t work something out on the political system and the government doesn’t admit that the current political structure has played a role in the recent turmoil, Carrie Lam’s proposed policies and any new proposed legislation isn’t going to settle the anger.”
While Lam has the majority in the LegCo, opposition parties still have ways to prevent it from operating. Yeung, the pro-democracy lawmaker, said more plans were in the works to disrupt future proceedings.
“We will play some tricks,” he said.
That has the pro-establishment lawmakers worried, even if they don’t all agree with Lam. Holden Chow, a lawmaker in a camp that is friendly with Beijing, said her policy address fell short of expectations and could extend the unrest.
“If the government can’t function and society is paralyzed, it sends a bad message to the rest of the world and in the long run will make people hesitate on whether to invest money in the city,” Chow said. “We’re an international city and if there’s an exodus of foreign companies and capital flight, it will entirely ruin our city.” MDT/Agencies

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