Hong Kong girds for more gridlock as protesters dig in

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who today begins her third year in office

Two years ago, Carrie Lam took control of Hong Kong’s government and, with Chinese President Xi Jinping looking on, pledged to “restore social harmony and rebuild public trust.” Today, she’ll start her third year facing a crisis as great as any of her predecessors.

Lam is expected to make her first public remarks in more than a week today to mark Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, with both her approval rating and public faith in Beijing at record lows. The activist group that twice this month turned out historic crowds demanding her resignation as chief executive will again lead thousands of her critics through the streets.

The political turmoil raises new questions about China’s stewardship over Hong Kong, almost halfway through its 50-year promise to preserve capitalist markets and personal freedoms in the former British colony. Lam and her backers in Beijing so far appeared determined to hang on, lest they risk emboldening a more unified opposition bent on stymieing their agenda.

“Long story, short: She won’t yield, she won’t budge. The people won’t yield, won’t budge either,” said Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker who’s been a prominent participant in recent rallies. “So this is a standoff, a deadlock. What’s going to happen is more protests. It’s an ongoing fight.”

While the opposition coalesced against Lam’s now-suspended proposal to allow extraditions to China, the latest rallies have begun to emphasize demands for greater democracy and criticism of the Communist Party. The annual July 1 protest march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, which has drawn as many as 400,000 people in previous years, will test whether activists can keep up the momentum.

Lam is expected to attend a flag-raising ceremony and a reception this morning to commemorate the occasion, potentially including her first remarks since June 18. Looking on will likely be pro-establishment lawmakers growing more anxious about next year’s elections for the Legislative Council, a body that the opposition could use to block government initiatives.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the biggest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has urged Lam to acknowledge that the extradition bill has been withdrawn as protesters are demanding. Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garment industries in the legislature, has called for a Cabinet shake-up to include more diverse views.

“The chief executive has said she would listen sincerely to public views and do more public consultation in the future,” Chung said. “Future policies may be rolled out more slowly, but each decision would be a right one.”

Still, Lam will struggle to rebuild support after repeating the political slide of her unpopular predecessor Leung Chun-ying. Her approval rating plunged 9 percentage points to 23% – the lowest since she took power, according to a survey released last week by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme. Support for the former British colony’s government fell to 18%, the lowest since 2003, the poll conducted between June 17-20 showed.

The city’s political factions will face a test of electoral support as early as November, when voters will elect more than 450 representatives on local district councils. A big defeat could increase pressure on China to replace Lam, like the city’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned in 2005 after similar mass protests.

“The chief executive will continue to work hard,” Lam’s No. 2, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, told reporters Friday. “We learn from experience. We will make improvements to our future policy direction and style of governance.”

Bonnie Leung, a vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, said the government needs to “go to the streets” and understand why the people have come out against it.

“The government is afraid of the people and the people do not respect the government,” she said. “The government has a habit of turning a deaf ear to all these ideas and keep doing what it wants to do.” MDT/Bloomberg

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