Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor signaled the end of a controversial extradition bill that she promoted and then postponed after some of the most violent protests since the 1997 handover.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Lam apologized for the turmoil but refused to say whether the bill would be withdrawn, only that it wouldn’t be re-introduced during her time in office if public fears persist.
This was the strongest sign yet that the government was effectively shelving legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face trial, even if it fell short of protesters’ demands for the government to scrap the bill altogether.
“Because this bill over the past few months has caused so much anxiety, and worries and differences in opinion, I will not, this is an undertaking, I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed,” Lam said.
She said she personally accepts responsibility for plunging the city into major upheaval and offered her “most sincere apology to all the people of Hong Kong”. She said she had heard the people “loud and clear” and would try to rebuild trust.
Young protesters gathered outside the Legislative Council building responded with boos to Lam’s latest speech, saying she had failed to address their demands for her to step down and for the bill to be withdrawn completely, RTHK reported.
Meanwhile, a colloquium of six religious leaders in Hong Kong urged the public in a joint statement to accept Lam’s public apology “to fix social confrontations and resume order in society”.
The group includes Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic and Confucian leaders.
Lam, appearing both contrite and defiant, used much of the same language as in a previous press conference on Saturday when she announced a postponement of the bill. A day later, about two million people spilled on to the streets.
Lam, asked repeatedly whether she would quit, refused to do so, saying there remained important work ahead in the next “three years”, which would bring her to the end of her current five-year term of office.
She reiterated that she wanted another chance to pursue the livelihood and economic programs that her administration has committed to fulfilling.
Lam’s climbdown, with the approval of China’s Communist Party leaders, was the biggest policy reversal since 1997 and presented a new challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping who has ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 2012.
Since the proposed amendments to the Fugitives Offenders’ Ordinance were first put to the legislature in February, Lam has repeatedly rebuffed concerns voiced in many quarters, including business groups, lawyers, judges, and foreign governments against the bill.
Critics say the bill would undermine Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and rule of law, guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China, by extending China’s reach into the city and allowing individuals to be arbitrarily sent back to China where they couldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.
Chinese courts are strictly controlled by the Communist Party.
Lam issued an apology on Sunday night through a written government statement that many people said lacked sincerity. It failed to pacify many marchers who said they no longer trusted her and doubted her ability to govern.
Lam, a career civil-servant known as “the fighter” for her straight-shooting and tough leadership style, took office two years ago pledging to heal a divided society.
Some observers say she is unlikely to step down immediately but any longer-term political ambitions she may have harbored are now all but dead.
Many protest organizers say they will continue to hold street demonstrations until Lam scraps the bill, fearing that authorities may seek to revive the legislation in future when the public mood is calmer.
During the press conference, Lam was also taken to task for describing last Wednesday’s clashes between police and protesters as a “riot”.
She said she had based her initial assessment on feedback from the police.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung on Monday backed down on his original assertion, saying that the behavior of some of the protesters might be considered as rioting offenses, although he believes that the majority of the protesters were peaceful. With Reuters
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