(Bloomberg) -- Historic crowds shut down central Hong Kong for a second straight Sunday, calling on embattled leader Carrie Lam to step aside. There’s one problem: Nobody seems quite sure who should replace her.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned out Sunday -- organizers put the number at around 2 million people -- said that Lam’s days were numbered even after she “paused” a bill that would for the first time allow extraditions to China. Just before 9 p.m., Lam issued a statement apologizing for causing “substantial controversies and disputes in society” -- though it was accepted by few swarming downtown streets.
“She is just trying to hang onto power,” said Ada Ku, a 38-year-old high school teacher. “I don’t think her apology is sincere.”
The protesters are aiming to knock out Lam in a show of people power that has gripped the world, embarrassing Beijing at a time when President Xi Jinping is engaged in an escalating economic fight with the Trump administration. Yet even if she eventually steps down, a widening gap between the financial hub and the mainland will put her successor in a similarly difficult position.
“I can’t see any viable candidates,” said student Casper Ng, 22, when asked who should take over from Lam if she resigns. “Most importantly, this person must listen to public views, not just the central government.”
Lam has failed to heal divisions in the former British colony two years after taking over from her unpopular former boss, Leung Chun-ying, who was forced to forego seeking a second term due to widespread discontent. While Lam may have underestimated the opposition to her extradition bill, her task was complicated by the requirement to serve two masters -- Hong Kong and Beijing -- without a public vote to provide a mandate.
“It’s an impossible job,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” who teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University. “You’re sandwiched between Beijing, which keeps giving orders, wants the Hong Kong government to toe the line on everything. Then you have the demands and expectations of Hong Kong society on the other hand.”
While governing Hong Kong would be difficult for anyone, Lam’s failure has been having a “tin ear,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor and China historian at the University of California, Irvine. The latest example, he said, was waiting for some 24 hours to apologize even after suspending the bill.
“It’s here that Carrie Lam has been failing,” he said.
The extradition saga raises new questions about whether Hong Kong is governable under the “one country, two systems’’ framework devised before the city’s return to Chinese rule 22 years ago. And it puts new pressure on China to either comprise on activists’ democratic demands or risk further unrest that could destroy its viability as one of the world’s great financial centers.
Many protesters liken Lam to Tung Chee-hwa, who was Hong Kong’s first leader after the handover to China in 1997 and forced from office by mass protests. He had championed a controversial national security law, which -- like Lam’s extradition bill -- stoked fears of a Beijing-led crackdown on freedoms.
Since the 2003 demonstrations, the overriding instruction from Beijing to Hong Kong has been to avoid large public protests that could risk spreading to the mainland, David Webb, a Hong Kong activist investor, wrote in a blog post titled “Why Carrie Lam must go.”
“There will be a period of time inserted before she makes some alternative excuse for stepping down,” Webb told Bloomberg Television on Monday. “But any second term for her, which would start in 2022, is completely out of the question.”
For Lam, a career civil servant, it’s been a stunning fall. She was raised in a walk-up apartment in the Wan Chai district -- where many protesters gathered Sunday -- and recalled doing homework on the bed because she lacked a desk. After graduating with a sociology degree at the University of Hong Kong, she joined the government.
She earned a reputation as a tough negotiator over the years. In 2007, she walked into an angry crowd to explain why Hong Kong was demolishing a historic pier. Then again in 2014 as the city’s no. 2 official, when she met with pro-democracy protesters to seek a deal to clear barricaded streets.
Yvonne Leung, who negotiated with Lam as head of the HKU student union during Occupy, said the group requested through intermediaries to negotiate with Lam because she was known as a mediator willing to make concessions.
“Five years ago, she was more sensible than she is now,” said Leung. “This time she just took a hard line.”
In announcing the bill’s suspension Saturday, Lam angered protesters by defending police descriptions of a demonstration Wednesday as a “riot” and insisting the proposal wouldn’t be withdrawn. On Sunday, opponents vowed to continue organizing strikes and protests until Lam reversed those decisions and stepped down.
“Why do so many people bother to take to the streets? Because there’s nothing else we can do,” said Bonnie Leung, a protest organizer. “We don’t have votes to vote people down, to stop things from happening.”
The show of people power essentially makes it impossible for Lam to move forward on the bill. One of Lam’s top advisers, Bernard Chan, told Bloomberg Television Monday “there’s no chance the bill will be reintroduced” because the legislative term ends next year.
The top spot in Hong Kong may be a poisoned chalice. Lam is just the fourth chief executive. Tung quit. His successor, Donald Tsang, was convicted on corruption charges after his term and released in January. Leung Chun-ying scrapped his re-election bid after his tenure was plagued by protests and the emergence of a small but disruptive independence movement.
Hong Kong is angry with Lam’s “arrogance” in refusing to withdraw the bill entirely, said Alan Leong, a former lawmaker and opposition candidate for chief executive.
“Even if she stays on, she can’t do anything for Hong Kong,” Leong said. “She is absolutely a lame duck now.”
--With assistance from Vinicy Chan, Karen Leigh, Isabel Reynolds and Jon Herskovitz.
To contact the reporters on this story: Blake Schmidt in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org;Annie Lee in Hong Kong at email@example.com;Fion Li in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at email@example.com, Brendan Scott
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