Hong Kong's highly unpopular leader Carrie Lam was heckled so much that she was unable to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday in congress.
Call it a State of Disunion speech.
It was pro-democracy lawmakers, not masked protestors, who disrupted this rare appearance by the city's leader, known as the Chief Executive. Lam may have assumed she would receive at least a civil welcome in the congressional chambers, where she was due to set her agenda as the Legislative Council starts its session. But she was wrong.
She was targeted by laser pointers, told to step down, and met with jeering such as "Five Demands, Not One Less," a slogan that was even projected on the wall of the chamber. That has been a common cry at this summer's demonstrations, which have continued for almost five months. In protest over her executive order making it illegal to wear a mask at a demonstration, some of the legislators wore masks, of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Lam didn't get off a lot easier than if she had appeared in public, which she is too scared to do. After two attempts to deliver her address, carried in a blue binder that was a nod to the "blue-ribbon" supporters of the administration, she scurried away. For the first time in history, the Policy Address was delivered by video link instead -- a government in exile within its own city.
When she finally spoke, Lam said the city had entered a technical recession in the third quarter. The government expects full-year GDP change of 0% to -1% in 2019. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday slashed its forecast for Hong Kong's growth from the 2.9% it estimated in January to just 0.3%.
The Legislative Council chambers where Lam appeared on Wednesday were invaded, defaced and destroyed on July 1 by pro-democracy demonstrators. They spray-painted over the Hong Kong emblem, raised the colonial and British flags, wrote anti-China graffiti on the walls, and left a bit of cash for the drinks they took from the canteen. The protestors have gotten a lot less polite since then, with firebombs and greater violence the more they are ignored.
Lam says the extradition bill that would have allowed the rendition of suspects into China's rigged legal system has been officially withdrawn, although that technically will have to happen this week the Legislative Council. But the government has essentially done nothing to address the root causes of the problem, and only attempts to crack down with arrests, police batons, tear gas and the mask law.
The protestors have insisted on five criteria: the full withdrawal of the extradition bill that kicked the chaos off; an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality; the retraction of the designation that protestors are "rioters"; an amnesty for those arrested; and universal suffrage.
Beijing promised when it was handed back Hong Kong by Britain in 1997 that it would introduce democracy in the city. Its attempt to do so, in which it offered one-person-one-vote but only between two or three candidates it hand-picked, was roundly rejected by democrats back in 2014.
Ahead of her address, Lam already had said that discussion of democracy was "not feasible," although it would be eminently feasible if she wanted to get those talks going. Generally, pro-Beijing and government forces appear to think that everything has not been "explained" sufficiently and that Hong Kongers don't "understand" the establishment point of view, as if the pro-democracy supporters were little children unable to grasp the complexity of politics.
For now, Lam is putting the "servant" in "civil servant." She obeys Beijing like a lapdog, giving the lie to the concept that Hong Kong has great autonomy in how it governs itself. In this speech, she yet again trotted out the vital importance of "One Country, Two Systems," which should allow Hong Kong to govern and operate itself according to its own rules, while remaining part of China.
This is a deception. It is clear the Communist Party insists on this autonomy when it is convenient while controlling Hong Kong behind the scenes. Indeed, Lam has said in a leaked speech to a hand-picked room of executives that she wants to quit and give a "deep apology" for the "unforgivable havoc" she has caused -- but obviously she can't even make a political decision about her own career, let alone how Hong Kong operates as a city.
Lam could easily initiate a conversation about how Hong Kong should elect its leadership. But she either is so incredibly stubborn she would rather see Hong Kong burn or she believes she is not allowed to do that by Beijing. The shareholder activist David Webb has suggested an easy way in which the Hong Kong government could increase representation, which would be to make the "functional constituencies" more democratic.
Half the 60 seats in congress currently are elected by functional constituencies made up of various professions, with a one-company-one-vote system. It's a structure Beijing put in place so it could control those seats by keeping business owners onside if they want to do business in China. Webb suggests opening those professional seats to one-person-one-vote for anyone working in those industries, a change that would require no alteration of the Basic Law constitution or approval from Beijing.
But no. Such consideration is "not feasible," Lam maintains. She even told the European Union's representative in the city that it would be pointless to tackle any of the protestor demands because "you can't negotiate with the mob." The EU representative, quite rightly, stated that it's not possible to end the current violence only through security measures and police action.
A law-and-order crackdown is Lam's current solution, as well as bribing people with sweeteners. Her third Policy Address (full text here) contains some 220 measures, none of them political, all of them economic. Mainly, she aims to make it easier to buy a home and will initiate for the first time an effort to force companies to give up land they hold for development. They will be compensated, but it's certainly a dent in Hong Kong's famously free economy. There are also measures to subsidize public transport and eliminate some tunnel tolls.
Hong Kong stocks are not participating in the political chaos. They closed up 0.6%, not quite copying the 1.0% gain in the S&P 500 the day before. China stocks, by contrast, closed down 0.3% as that misplaced optimism over the "trade deal," which I explained on Monday is non-existent, wears off.