Hong Kong revives divisive issues with economy still reeling from coronavirus

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam faces the challenge of balancing competing priorities.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam faces the challenge of balancing competing priorities.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's leader is pushing ahead with politically divisive policies that may prompt new protests against China's influence over the city, even as she tries to revive a once-vibrant economy that's been battered by unrest and the coronavirus pandemic.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday (May 12) a controversial law making it illegal to disrespect China's national anthem would get priority in the city's legislature, and it's necessary for school curriculum reforms that would foster a "national identity," moves that could prompt further protests in the Asian financial hub.

Mrs Lam, whose government has punished teachers for speaking out on the city's pro-democracy protests, also said she was awaiting a task force report on education reforms.

"I'm not afraid of other's criticism or smearing," she said at a regular news conference ahead of a meeting of her advisory Executive Council. "Education is about character building and I hope that everyone who works in education can uphold that spirit."

Both Mrs Lam and her backers in Beijing are trying to increase pressure on opposition politicians who have been filibustering in Hong Kong's Legislative Council. That includes the important House Committee election, which is chaired by a pro-democracy lawmaker singled out by China for potentially violating his oath of office.

Mrs Lam's government is trying to get the city back to normal as it grapples with a deep recession caused by more than six months of protests last year, followed by Covid-19.

In doing so, she faces the challenge of balancing competing priorities, including reviving the economy by relaxing virus-era restrictions, handling resurgent protests and pushing a policy agenda that risks sparking further unrest that could derail a recovery.

Her officials on Friday relaxed measures on public gatherings, raising the number of people allowed to gather to eight, from just four.

Hong Kong's lively bar and restaurant scene appears to be returning to normal, with crowds packing central areas. But alongside those steps, pro-democracy demonstrators - whose demands last year for universal suffrage were never met - are renewing their movement, with several rallies held this past weekend.

ANOTHER BILL

Hong Kong's historic protest movement was first sparked last June by a since-scrapped Bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

 
 
 

Now many democracy activists are angry at recent statements from Mrs Lam and pro-establishment politicians about the need to bring in a law that would criminalise insulting China's anthem, as well as controversial national security legislation that sparked a previous round of protests in 2003.

Prior statements from pro-establishment politicians about Hong Kong students not being sufficiently patriotic have fuelled concerns among activists that the government might revamp the city's school curriculum to be more pro-China.

"It's time for comprehensive review," Mrs Lam said Tuesday in response to questions about the city's liberal studies curriculum. "And to see whether it fulfils its initial aim and has the support of society, including whether the subject can equip students with a broad knowledge base, respect for diverse cultures, the ability to know right from wrong, to become responsible citizens, an understanding of national identity and having a global view."

Beijing's top agencies overseeing the city - the Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office - also recently argued for a greater role supervising the city's politics. They have blasted opposition politicians for delaying tactics in the legislature, raising concerns that they are impinging on Hong Kong's autonomy.

Mrs Lam said in a Monday interview published in the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper that she would give details on how to "handle" the Liberal Studies subject within the year.

"Education cannot be left unguarded, it must be tackled if something went wrong," the report said, citing Mrs Lam. The government and schools need to be a gatekeeper as there are people who spread untrue and biased fallacies on purpose, it cited her as saying.

 
 
 

'IGNORED WARNINGS'

Police said Monday they had arrested 230 people Sunday for unlawful assembly and a range of other offences - the most detained in a single day since last year's protests fizzled out amid the pandemic.

"Members of the public are advised not to participate in any prohibited group gathering," police said in a statement. "Police adopt zero tolerance against any violation and will take strict enforcement action."

Although Hong Kong has successfully contained the virus without a total lockdown, residents are weary after enduring social distancing restrictions - including work from home measures, school closures and a ban on gatherings - since late January, which have been longer than in most other global metropolises.