June 12, 2019 / 4:02 AM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Hong Kong chief bets everything on a losing hand

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam stands on the podium before taking her oath, during the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, in Hong Kong, China, July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Hong Kong will pay the price of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s losing bet. The city’s leader plans to push through a bill allowing extradition to mainland China, despite escalating street protests and strikes. There will be long-term damage, financial and otherwise. For now, the cost of her battered credibility will be the administration’s worthwhile policies, including much-needed housing reform.   

Lam has herself to blame for her predicament and the biggest demonstrations since the handover from British rule in 1997. Her bill, first proposed in February, ostensibly aimed to close a loophole by allowing extradition requests from jurisdictions including China, Taiwan and Macau to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Instead, the change became a flashpoint, calling into question the “one country, two systems” principle which allows the former British colony greater autonomy, and a distinct legal structure. Concerns voiced by businesses, pro-democracy activists, as well as legal, religious, diplomatic and other communities, were brushed aside.

Now the city is facing a political crisis. One million-plus protesters, a record turnout as estimated by organisers, marched against the bill on Sunday, and called for Lam’s resignation. Reassurances that human rights will be safeguarded are unlikely to help. On Wednesday, thousands more protesters stormed key roads next to government offices, forcing officials to delay a scheduled debate over the bill in the city’s legislature. 

Yet Lam is digging in. The proposal, which already bypassed standard public consultations and reviews, will be fast-tracked to a legislative vote expected on June 20. Beijing has weighed in too, making it even harder for her to back down.

Hong Kong’s status depends in large part on its autonomy and rule of law: compromising those will have devastating implications for the foreign businesses and multinational corporations that operate there. In the nearer term, it is the city’s population that will shoulder the burden. Lam had made a promising start in tackling a widening economic divide in a cripplingly expensive city that also boasts the world’s least affordable property market. Her housing initiatives, for instance, enlisted private developers to build more homes for the middle class. But with her political capital eroded, those promises now look empty.

Breakingviews

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