Time is running out for Lam to demonstrate Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and that she is “not China”

Timothy J. Peirson-Smith, Managing Director of Executive Counsel Limited, calls for action from the Hong Kong and Central governments after the results of the 2019 District Council elections.

Nobody could have predicted the turnout. Hongkongers voted in huge numbers in a proxy referendum, with 71.2% of registered voters casting their ballots to vote for 452 district councillors, who oversee everyday district affairs. The silent majority mobilised to vote based on bad governance, police action, and subsequent government inaction. 

Many of the freshman pan-democratic candidates, who participated in the protests roiling the city over the past six months, rode the wave to win big in poor and rich neighbourhoods, in protest-prone and protest-free districts, and in both downtown areas and suburbs. The ballot has sent a clear message to the Hong Kong and Central government that protesters still support the movement and remain  dissatisfied with the Hong Kong government. 

The pro-establishment camp’s abject performance both shocked and wrong-footed Beijing as they had been told by their own representatives that their own would win an overwhelming victory. Worse still, opinion leaders say that China believed their own propaganda about Hong Kong. 

Critics say that both the China Liaison Office and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office widely missed the mark. Together with Beijing’s informal channels, their continuous comforting narratives caught Beijing off guard. The same critics say it was Beijing’s oleaginous ‘toadies’, who are the root cause of Beijing’s enormous misjudgment towards the current situation. The toadies, they say, are also those who advise Lam and never cried foul when the one million-strong  peaceful protest on 9 June sparked Hong Kong’s governance crisis.

Beijing would be prudent to now reimagine the Hong Kong script after this landslide victory. It is surely a loud wake-up call for some deeper thinking on Hong Kong’s actual public opinion and China’s approach to the city.

The ball is now squarely in the Hong Kong and Central governments’ court.

It is the Hong Kong people who have offered an opportunity for Lam and her administration to defuse the governance crisis. If Lam chooses the right path, she might bring about societal truth and a meaningful reconciliation. But until now she has, on every occasion, chosen the wrong and inflammatory path. “A dollar short and a day late” as some critics have observed.  

It is obvious that the public is not satisfied with lame Lam’s tone-deaf response, as she acknowledged she has two masters and is thus accountable not only to the Central government, but to “her” people in Hong Kong. 

Lam claimed she had received no “instruction” from Beijing and that she had to be held accountable for the results. Her lack of response post-election lit a fuse. But now is the time for Lam to show Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and demonstrate clearly that she is not a puppet of the Central government. She should listen to the 2.94 million voters and at least order an independent commission of inquiry into the protests, policing, white shirts, and government officials in order to de-escalate and promote reconciliation. A tame, independent police review has no statutory power to investigate the underlying issues. Lam must also exercise the accountability system to roll some heads. 

Crucially, pan-democrats must not forget that the silent majority condemns violence from both protesters and police. They voted against the government because they were frustrated with its silence and abject failure to provide an end to the six month ordeal.

The newly elected must formally and vocally reject violence and vandalism while they oversee the repair of damage done by radical protesters to their districts. District councilors are presented with the opportunity to be the catalyst for all to engage in difficult – but vitally urgent – talks to seek a resolution that will benefit the whole community. 

Let our newly triumphant district councillors embrace this opportunity to be bold and make some mistakes along the way; in the process it will surely rub off any angular corners and make them better politicians. They should be wary of repeating the devastating defeat in the 2007 District Council elections and not forget their fundamental responsibilities to all their constituents. 

They should never be the government’s “district puppets” that many of their predecessors were, but be leaders of their communities who listen to peoples’ voices and bring new, creative solutions to old problems. Let these neo-councillors make good use of 21st century social media tools like the protest movement itself did so efficiently (such as live-streaming) to promote transparency in the council’s work while listening to their electorates’ concerns.  

Hong Kong people’s dogged tenacity has won international admiration and a priceless opportunity to bring change to the city’s dysfunctional political system, but the time for change is today.  Not tomorrow, not later – now.

Printer: R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road, Central, Hong Kong 

Timothy J Peirson-Smith

Timothy J Peirson-Smith

Timothy J. Peirson-Smith is CEO of Executive Counsel Limited, a planning, development and strategic communications consultancy, based in Hong Kong for over 30 years.
Timothy J Peirson-Smith
Timothy J Peirson-Smith the author

Timothy J. Peirson-Smith is CEO of Executive Counsel Limited, a planning, development and strategic communications consultancy, based in Hong Kong for over 30 years.