June 2019 marks the beginning of the end of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s political career.
In the space of just one week, the record for Hong Kong’s largest civil demonstration was broken twice, with more than one million people attending both protests against the controversial extradition bill, which amends the Fugitive Ordinance to allow extraditions to China, Taiwan and Macau.
And on June 12, the day the bill was expected to resume its second reading in the Legislative Council, protests against the bill descended into the worst clashes between police and civilians since the civil unrest in Mong Kok three years ago.
Even though Lam later suspended the legislative work on the extradition bill and apologised to Hong Kong citizens for “not doing her best”, her apology had little effect on pacifying an angry opposition.
The fallout from this bill has already uncovered major flaws in the system and plunged the government into its biggest crisis yet.
The Hospital Authority has been accused by public health workers, through the sector’s lawmaker, Pierre Chan, of granting police full access to patients’ medical records to search for protesters who were admitted into public hospitals. Police have already admitted two people were arrested while they were receiving treatment.
The police were also accused of using excessive force during the protests on the June 12, with one video showing an officer repeatedly pepper-spraying an unarmed bystander, who was sitting down, in the face.
Another showed an unarmed protester being rugby-tackled to the ground and beaten by at least 10 officers suited with full riot gear.
Journalists covering the protests that day were obstructed, threatened or verbally abused by riot officers and were attacked with batons and tear gas, despite having clear identification on who they were.
But the authorities have done nothing to address to these allegations.
Top administrators from the Hospital Authority and police commanders only shifted questions regarding patients’ privacy towards each other.
No one within the police ranks is taking responsibility of giving the order to fire tear gas, beanbags, and rubber bullets on the June 12.
And when asked about excessive police force, both security chief John Lee and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo did not give an answer and only asked those who were affected to make a complaint to the Complaints Against Police Office.
Even though Lam wants to put this whole saga behind her and win back public support by “working even harder”, this nightmarish month is a sign of things to come for the rest of her governance.
Protesters are now demanding she scrap the extradition bill instead of suspending it, rescind her definition of the June 12 protests as a “riot” and hold the police officers who demonstrated excessive force to account.
Other controversial legislation, such as the National Anthem Bill, which was proposed to “preserve the dignity” of the Chinese national anthem, and the first funding for Lam’s pet project, the Lantau Tomorrow Vision, are yet to be discussed within the Legco chamber.
Lam will need all the political support she can get for the rest of her term to get her grand projects approved.
But should she cave down under opposition pressure now, she risks alienating her allies in the pro-establishment camp.
Executive Council member and former chair of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), Ip Kwok-him, have already said Lam could not scrap the bill as she had to take care of the feelings of her allies, who had thrown their weight behind it.
Several pro-establishment lawmakers were reported to have walked out of the meeting with Lam at Government House, after she told them of her decision to suspend the extradition bill.
Every seat in all 18 district councils will be up for election in November, and after the extradition bill, most pro-establishment parties will be expecting an uphill battle, as most of their lawmakers and district councillors have supported the amendment since the very beginning.
They are in damage control now and their only hopes of preventing a total wipeout in the coming election is to make sure the extradition bill remains suspended instead of retracted, to convince voters they still have access to the city’s top official.
However, on the other hand, if Lam doesn’t pay attention to the opposition demands, the backlash and the damage could cost her and possibly Beijing more than an election.
With anti-government momentum fired up by the protests against the extradition bill, there is no doubt that opposition forces will do anything to disrupt government business inside parliament. Any wrong move by government officials now will be capsulised by opposition parties and used to wreak more damage against an already weak government.
Lam could get more breathing space for potential mishaps if she gives more concessions to the opposition, or uses it as a springboard to regain her lost mandate.
But for now, apologising to the general public only gives her a stay of execution. Whether her political career will survive this crisis depends on her next move.