July 9, 2019 / 5:59 AM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Hong Kong chief's humiliating retreat comes late

A woman holds a picture of Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a gathering of Hong Kong mothers to show their support for the city's young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Hong Kong’s embattled leader is beating a belated retreat. Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that a controversial bill allowing extraditions to the mainland was dead, calling the government’s work to amend the law a total failure. The humiliating climbdown aims to defuse street protests; but she’ll need more to regain the confidence of corporate bosses, investors and citizens.

The proposal, which would have allowed suspects to be sent to China for trial, prompted outrage in the city, where it was seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s independent legal system. Lam scrambled to put the plan on hold but failed to soothe fears, and protesters stormed the legislature last week anyway.

Tuesday’s painful admission of defeat was both welcome and inevitable. Beijing needed an end to civil disobedience, not least after the latest demonstrations began targeting mainland visitors arriving on trains from over the border.

But Lam’s speech, characteristically wooden and buttoned-up, comes too late to silence the wider concerns that pushed Hong Kongers onto the streets. She emphasised the bill would not come back, yet sidestepped demands for her departure. She acknowledged lingering doubts about the government’s sincerity too, but it will require far more to rebuild confidence and fix broken trust.

Hong Kong’s many stakeholders have openly worried the city’s leaders are tone deaf, and simply not up to the task. The administration is not democratically elected and so will have to find other ways to tune in to a population, especially younger generations, squeezed in an increasingly unaffordable city. Efforts to widen public consultation forums, as alluded to by Lam, would help. Electoral reforms to give citizens a greater say might too, despite Beijing’s restrictions.

Corporate bosses and bankers need to be convinced too. The demonstrations have already shuttered offices and triggered strikes. After protests in 2014, companies ranging from a local hotel operator to the sprawling Swire conglomerate blamed lacklustre results and weak consumption on the Occupy Central movement. Angry citizens can be expensive.


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