Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam reiterated that her government would not set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate police actions—a core demand that protesters have continually asserted since June.
At a press conference on Aug. 27, when asked by a reporter whether she would consider exercising the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to resolve the crisis—a law that grants the chief executive broad powers to make arrests, stop communications, and issue punishment during “occasions of emergency or public danger”—Lam’s vague response ignited debate among Hongkongers.
Ronny Tong, an adviser to the Hong Kong government’s cabinet, earlier made public comments suggesting that Lam could use the Ordinance to declare a state of emergency and ban all demonstrations. Under the Ordinance, anyone found in violation of rules could be punished with two years imprisonment.
After Lam delivered her statement, in which she stressed that her proposed platform for dialogue with protesters would be the solution to resolve an ongoing crisis stemming from opposition to a controversial extradition bill, a reporter posed the question about the Ordinance.
She did not deny or confirm whether she would invoke the law, only pointing out that her government would consider all “existing laws.”
“All of Hong Kong’s laws, if they can provide a rule of law measure to stop the violence and chaos, the government has the responsibility to look at it,” Lam said.
Lam stressed that she has been meeting with different sectors of society to seek dialogue.
Local media reported that she met with 19 unnamed individuals at the Government House, the chief executive’s residence, on Aug. 24.
Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily also reported that Lam met with about 20 youths aged between 20 to 30 at the Youth Square building on Aug. 26. The meeting was arranged by Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office. She was accompanied by Kevin Yeung, the Secretary of Education, and Lau Kong-wah, the Secretary of Home Affairs, as well as unidentified members of the Liaison Office.
Lam again reiterated that the city’s police internal watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Council, will review police use of force in recent demonstrations; thus, establishing an independent commission wouldn’t be suitable. Protesters have said they believe the internal watchdog would not be sufficiently impartial in making judgments.
Lam denied claims that she rejected forming the commission due to opposition from the police force.
The pan-democracy camp in the city’s legislature held a press conference after Lam’s latest remarks, where they raised the alarm on Lam’s vague response regarding the emergency ordinance.
Democracy Party lawmaker Helena Wong said if Lam were to carry out the emergency ordinance, that would spell the end of freedom of press and communications in Hong Kong, since the ordinance grants the chief executive the power to control and suppress publications, texts, images, and communications.
Lawmaker Claudia Mo elaborated that Lam would also have the power to ban the use of the LIHKG online forum and messaging app Telegram—two communication tools widely used by protesters to share information and organize events.
If the law were to be invoked, Mo said that Lam would have unlimited power to rule over the city like “a dictator.”
Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki warned that the law could have a detrimental impact on the city’s stock market and real estate, as foreign investors would flee.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Andrew Wan said that it would officially mean the end of “one country, two systems,” the model under which Beijing promised to rule Hong Kong while granting a high degree of autonomy after the city was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Ongoing protests stem from many Hongkongers’ fears that an extradition bill—which would allow the Chinese regime to transfer individuals to be trialed in mainland China—would further erode the city’s autonomy and endanger its independent judiciary.
On the streets of Hong Kong, many expressed disappointment in Lam’s response.
“I think the government should do more to resolve this matter, but [it’s] just blaming the protesters,” said Derek Chan, a lawyer.
He believed that the lack of universal suffrage in the city’s elections was “the root problem.”
“Hong Kong people don’t have the right to choose their leader. And if their leader has done something wrong, they cannot vote them down,” he said. Currently, the chief executive is voted in by an electoral committee comprising of pro-Beijing elites. Candidates are also hand-picked by Beijing.
Lawmaker James To, who held a press conference to explain what he and his colleagues in the legislature discussed while on a recent trip to the United States to attend a forum organized by the Department of State, said that the emergency ordinance would likely impact the city’s special trading privileges.
Currently, the United States views Hong Kong as a separate entity from mainland China in matters of trade, commerce, and investments. U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill that proposes making Hong Kong’s special trading status contingent on the issuance of an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy. To said that at the forum, a number of U.S. lawmakers expressed support for passing the bill.
He predicted that implementing the emergency law would invite censure from the United States, thus adding more political pressure on Beijing.
Joshua Wong, a local pro-democracy activist, urged world governments to condemn the potential use of this ordinance.
“It is a de facto Martial Law…it might be more detrimental than Chinese troops marching into the city. The world has anticipated the use of PLA [People’s Liberation Army, the official name of the Chinese military] in Hong Kong, but has never imagined Press Freedom & Property rights will one day vanish into thin air,” Wong said on Twitter.
Jeremy Sandberg contributed to this report.