Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Saturday delayed indefinitely a proposed law that would allow extraditions to mainland China, in a dramatic retreat after widespread anger over the bill sparked the biggest street protests in three decades.
The extradition bill, which would cover Hong Kong residents as well as foreign and Chinese nationals in the city, was seen by many as a threat to the rule of law in the former British colony.
“After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work and listen to different views of society,” Lam told a news conference.
She said there was no deadline, effectively suspending the process indefinitely.
Critics said they were not satisfied with the Hong Kong leader’s announcement and urged her to resign.
They said the possibility remains that the administration will push through with the legislation after the Legislative Council’s summer break.
Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun said Lam has lost credibility to govern the city, RTHK reported.
Asked repeatedly if she would step down, Lam avoided directly answering and appealed to the public to “give us another chance”. She said she had been a civil servant for decades and still had work she wanted to do.
A huge demonstration this Sunday will proceed as scheduled, organizers said.
In addition to calling for the bill to be completely scrapped, they would also be pushing for accountability of the police for the way protests have been handled.
China’s foreign ministry said Hong Kong matters were a Chinese internal affair and no country, organization or individual has a right to interfere.
Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the ministry had taken note of Lam’s announcement. He said China’s determination to safeguard the country’s sovereignty and security, and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, was unshakable.
The “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been governed by China since 1997 has been “earnestly” put into effect, and the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people fully guaranteed, Geng Shuang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.
Around a million people marched through the city last Sunday to oppose the bill, according to protest organizers, the largest since protests in the city against the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations centered around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Demonstrations continued through the week and were met with tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets from police, plunging the city into turmoil and piling heavy pressure on Lam.
Lam acknowledged that the huge protests in the past days contributed to her decision to suspend work on the extradition bill, noting that she was saddened by the “serious conflicts” that resulted in injuries to police officers, media workers and other members of the public.
“As a responsible government, we have to maintain law and order on the one hand, and evaluate the situation for the greatest interest of Hong Kong, including restoring calmness in society as soon as possible and avoiding any more injuries to law enforcement officers and citizens,” she said.
Lam said one of the principal reasons for proposing to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance was to deal with a murder case involving a Hong Kong citizen who killed his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and fled back to the city.
No longer urgent
However, in view of “the overt and clear expression by Taiwan repeatedly that it would not accede to the suggested arrangement of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government in the transfer of the concerned suspect, the original urgency to pass the bill in this legislative year is perhaps no longer there”, she said.
Lam’s about-face was one of the most significant political turnarounds under public pressure by the Hong Kong government since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and it threw into question Lam’s ability to continue to lead the city.
But it potentially alleviated an unwanted headache for the leadership in Beijing, which is grappling with a slowing economy and a simmering trade war with the United States.
The extradition bill deliberations started in February and Lam had pushed to have it passed by July. Backing down was unthinkable last week when the law’s passage seemed inevitable as Lam remained defiant.
But the protests changed the equation.
Cracks began to appear on Friday in the support base for the bill with several pro-Beijing politicians and a senior adviser to Lam saying discussion of the bill should be postponed for the time being.
Lam had not appeared in public or commented since Wednesday. She met pro-Beijing lawmakers to explain her pending announcement earlier on Saturday.
Sing Tao newspaper reported that China’s top official overseeing Hong Kong policy, Vice Premier Han Zheng, met Lam in Shenzhen in recent days.
Lam declined to confirm whether or not the meeting had happened, but took ownership for the decision to suspend the bill and said she had support from the central government.
She stopped short of apologizing, but said: “I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and dispute in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years, disappointing many people.”
“We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements so that we can continue to connect with the people of Hong Kong,” Lam added.
Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill had spooked some of Hong Kong’s tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, Reuters reported, citing financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.
And senior police officers have said Lam’s refusal to heed public opinion was sowing resentment in the force, which was already battered by accusations of police brutality during the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella” civil disobedience movement.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, said a total withdrawal of the bill would not be possible.
“The amendment is supported by the central government, so I think a withdrawal would send a political message that the central government is wrong. This would not happen under ‘one country, two systems’,” he told Reuters, referring to the model under which Hong Kong enjoys semi-autonomy.
Lam has said the extradition law is necessary to prevent criminals using Hong Kong as a place to hide and that human rights will be protected by the city’s court which will decide on the extraditions on a case-by-case basis.
Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note that China’s justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.
Hong Kong is governed by China under a “one country, two systems” deal that guarantees it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.
The Chinese government has denied that it has overreached in Hong Kong. With Reuters
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