Hong Kong’s leader announced on Saturday that she was backing down and suspending her contentious extradition bill, but refused to withdraw it altogether or apologise for the serious conflicts caused by her government’s campaign to bulldoze it through the legislature.
While conceding inadequacies in her handling of the controversy and asking for a second chance to do a better job of building a consensus, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor insisted her justification for changing the city’s extradition laws was sound, and brushed aside calls for her resignation in light of the rift in society and violent protests triggered by her push for the bill.
“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,” she said at the start of a 75-minute media session to announce the big “pause”.
Lam defended the use of force by police who fired tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to fend off protesters who blocked lawmakers from debating the bill on Wednesday, saying the crackdown had been “reasonable and natural”.
She also insisted her climbdown, after weeks of sticking to her guns, was her own decision and not made by Beijing, which was informed about it and supported her.
The chief executive refused to confirm whether she had recently met Vice-Premier Han Zheng, the state leader in charge of Hong Kong affairs, but two sources told the Post she did have a meeting with him before Saturday. Sources also confirmed that Beijing officials were in Shenzhen this weekend to assess the mood in Hong Kong after the announcement.
In separate statements, Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and its representative liaison office in the city expressed their “respect and understanding” regarding Lam’s U-turn.
“The central government strongly condemns any violent acts and supports the police force … for safeguarding the rule of law and stability in Hong Kong,” they added.
Lam announced her climbdown after top Beijing officials in charge of the city’s affairs held meetings in neighbouring Shenzhen to find a way out of a crisis that has made international headlines.
While the extradition bill would allow the transfer of fugitives to mainland China, Taiwan and other jurisdictions with which the city has no extradition deal, opposition has snowballed over the past months because of domestic and international fears that they might not receive a fair trial across the border.
The bill has put the spotlight on concerns about political persecution and mistrust in mainland China’s justice system.
Lam was under intense pressure to break the biggest impasse in city politics in recent years, after hundreds of thousands marched in protest last Sunday and more than 80 people were injured in the violence on Wednesday.
She held a meeting late on Friday night with key government officials, and on Saturday with pro-establishment legislators, who remained strongly supportive of her push for the bill.
The pro-Beijing camp, the business sector, the US consulate general, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt were among the first to welcome the suspension.
But opposition pan-democratic politicians were furious that Lam would not step down, apologise or withdraw the bill. They called on their supporters to carry on with the resistance, including another mass rally planned on Sunday.
Lam insisted her decision was not to pacify protesters but to ensure there would be no more violence and injuries.
“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,” she said.
While there had been calls for the urgent passage of the bill to plug a legal loophole allowing a murder suspect to remain in Hong Kong and escape prosecution in Taiwan, Lam said, Taipei had made “overt and clear expressions” that it would not agree to her government’s arrangements in transferring the suspect.
“The original urgency to pass the bill in this legislative year is perhaps no longer there,” she conceded.
As for building a broader consensus on the bill, Lam said she had no intention to set a deadline, and promised to consult Legco’s security panel before deciding on the next step forward.
“I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years, disappointing many people,” she said.
“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.”
At the same time, she insisted the bill was still needed to address deficiencies in the city’s legal and extradition systems.
“We still need to plug loopholes. So at this stage, I don’t think the bill can be withdrawn,” she said.
Asked if it was appropriate for the police to categorise Wednesday’s protest action as a “riot”, Lam replied: “It was the police’s responsibility to describe and define what happened, and I agree with what they said. Aggressive weapons were used in attacking police officers, and it was reasonable and natural for officers to enforce the law.”
Pro-establishment lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said Lam’s decision would allow the city to move forward.
But the pan-democratic camp’s convenor, Claudia Mo Man-ching, said opponents of the bill would not retreat because Lam was still unwilling to withdraw the bill.
“She must scrap the labelling of what happened on Wednesday as rioting. She must release everyone that has been arrested in relation to what happened on Wednesday,” Mo said.
“Lam has lost all credibility among all Hong Kong people. She must step down.”
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei, Alvin Lum and Su Xinqi
More from South China Morning Post:
- As it happened: Carrie Lam backs down and 'suspends' Hong Kong extradition bill, sets no new time frame
- Suspend versus withdraw: How is the passage of Hong Kong extradition bill different from aborted Article 23 legislation in 2003?
- Hong Kong extradition bill: business groups breathe collective sigh of relief over government decision to delay legislation
- Hong Kong protest organisers vow to press ahead with Sunday march despite government backing down on extradition bill – but Monday’s strike is off