Hong Kong's leader withdraws extradition bill that ignited mass protests
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has said her government will formally withdraw an extradition bill that has ignited months of protests and plunged the territory into its biggest political crisis in decades.
In a five-minute televised address on Wednesday, Lam said her government would formally withdraw the controversial bill to “fully allay public concerns”.
The bill, which would have allowed the extradition of suspects to China to be tried under the mainland’s opaque judicial system, prompted the start of mass protests in June that have led to increasingly violent confrontations with police and the arrest of more than 1,000 people.
“Our citizens, police and reporters have been injured during violent incidents,” Lam said. “There have been chaotic scenes at the airport and [mass transit railway] stations; roads and tunnels have been suddenly blocked.
“Visitors wonder whether our city is still a safe place for travel or business. Families and friends have been under stress, and arguments have flared. For many people, Hong Kong has become an unfamiliar place.”
Lam shelved the bill in June and in July again insisted it was “dead” after weeks of protest but has until now refused to withdraw it entirely, a key demand of the protesters who argued it could be revived in future.
By formally withdrawing the bill, Lam conceded to one of five key demands of the demonstrators, in what is being seen as an effort to de-escalate demonstrations that have become increasingly violent on both sides.
The chief executive did not concede to protesters’ other demands, which include an independent inquiry into police behaviour, amnesty to those arrested, and democratic reforms to give Hong Kong residents universal suffrage.
Lam said she did not believe the government should establish an inquiry to look into police behaviour, among the most important of the demonstrators’ demands, deferring to an existing police watchdog agency, the Independent Police Complaints Council. Lam said she would be adding two new members to the council.
Instead, Lam said her government would open a platform for dialogue, inviting community leaders, experts and others to investigate social issues and advise the government.
“After more than two months of social unrest, it is obvious to many that discontentment extends far beyond the bill,” she said.
Lam’s announcement, which marks a volte-face after months of vowing not to back down to the protesters, comes less than a month before China celebrates its national day on 1 October, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
“She has to do something otherwise it’s going to be ugly,” said Michael Tien, one of the pro-Beijing lawmakers who attended a meeting with Lam before her announcement. “So she is making this gesture now, this concession. There is a month in between she was hoping things would die down.”
In the meeting, Lam came across calm and hopeful, according to Tien. “I think she honestly felt that this could settle the score.”
It remains to be seen whether the measure will calm protests which have morphed into a much broader political movement, much of it fuelled by public anger at the police and the government.
“That alone is not going to be enough to satisfy an angry and frustrated public. The nature of the protest movement has transformed over the last 13 weeks,” said Adam Ni, a researcher at Macquarie University, in Sydney. “If she does not take further steps, then we can expect the protests to continue.”
As news of the bill’s withdrawal spread on Wednesday, riot police were seen patrolling metro stations as some protesters called for people to gather at various stations.
A protester, gave only his first name, Alan, said: “Of course I won’t accept it. We have five demands, we want all of them, not one less. The most important issue to be solved is the police abuse of power.”
The protests have pushed Hong Kong, a major financial and business hub, to the brink of a recession with businesses and shops suffering and investors reconsidering their presence in the territory.
Following Lam’s address, protesters repeatedly posted: “Five demands, not one less!” on the LIHKG forum.
Many comments referred to a woman who was badly injured in an eye by projectiles fired by the police and protesters who have reportedly taken their own lives.
A survey, released on Wednesday, of private business activity showed the “steepest deterioration in the health of the private sector since February 2009”, at the height of the global financial crisis. Ahead of Lam’s speech, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index jumped 4%.
The protests have also pitted Hong Kong’s freedoms, as promised under the terms of the former British colony’s handover to China in 1997, against Beijing’s authority over the city.
Earlier this week, Reuters published a recording of Lam speaking to a group of business executives in which she said she would step down if she were able to – suggesting Beijing had strong-armed her into remaining in office.
On Tuesday, however, Lam told reporters she wanted to remain in office to see Hong Kong through such a difficult period.
Lam’s announcement came after a weekend of some of the worst clashes of the last three months as protesters threw petrol bombs and the police deployed water cannons, rubber bullets and teargas.
Police were seen chasing down and beating passengers in metro stations. On Sunday, protesters paralysed links to the city’s airport, a major international travel hub.
“This announcement cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the government,” said Man-Kei Tam, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.
University and secondary students launched a class boycott this week and protesters have planned further action in the weeks ahead. It includes another attempt to paralyse the airport, and a rally outside the US consulate in Hong Kong, to call on lawmakers to pass legislation that would sanction officials deemed as suppressing freedom or human rights in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, protesters remained suspicious of Lam’s concession. “She’s just doing this to try and disintegrate the movement. A lot of people think that,” said a protester, who asked to give only her name Katya. “The situation has escalated to a point where not even Beijing knows how to sort this. So they’re using different tricks and lies. Hong Kong people have learned to ignore her.”
Lily Kuo y Verna Yu