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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

In an unexpected move, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Wednesday that months after suspending, rather than formally killing, a bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, her government was formally withdrawing the proposed legislation.

Suspension and withdrawal had been a distinction with a difference for protesters, who had been taking to the streets for nearly three months of escalating violence, mass demonstrations and the arrest of more than 1,000 people.

Ms. Lam had steadfastly refused to pull it even after a protest march by a million people and violent protests outside the Legislative Council physically prevented legislators from meeting to pass the bill. So it begs the question: Why now?

Her refusal to meet protesters’ demands – echoed by many sectors of society, such as educators, lawyers and care givers – seemed inexplicable. It was the easiest step for the government to take to ease tensions. But at a press conference on Aug. 13, she was asked point-blank if her hands had been tied by the Chinese government or if she had the autonomy to make the decision to withdraw the bill. Ms. Lam evaded the question.

It was an instructive exchange. The Chief Executive is known to have met with China Vice-Premier Han Zheng, whose portfolio includes Hong Kong, before suspending the bill. According to a well-placed source, Ms. Lam had informed the Chinese official that she would only suspend, not withdraw, the bill. Because of that, she had felt since then that she should not go beyond the limits that she herself had set.

Wednesday’s withdrawal announcement came two days after the highly embarrassing leak of an audio recording of a closed-door meeting in which Hong Kong’s leader reportedly confessed that she wanted to quit. The audio recording also had her admitting that her room to manoeuvre “is very, very, very limited,” especially since the issue had risen to a “sovereignty and security level” amid “unprecedented tension between the two biggest economies in the world." (Ms. Lam has since denied considering resigning.) Reuters had previously reported that Ms. Lam had sought to withdraw the bill earlier this summer, but was told by Beijing not to do so.

Ms. Lam’s reference to economic tension makes it clear that Hong Kong is now very much a part of the larger U.S.-China trade war. U.S. President Donald Trump is now explicitly linking Hong Kong and the trade war, even as China rejects such a connection, insisting, as Mr. Trump had initially said, that the Hong Kong protests are an internal matter.

At the very least, Hong Kong has been a distraction. China has ominously massed troops outside Hong Kong, intimidating protesters without actually sending them in, while issuing threatening rhetoric. And the Hong Kong government’s perceived stubbornness had been causing many everyday citizens to sympathize with protesters, who have by and large been peaceful but have occasionally resorted to violence. These concessions, conceivably, represent a way to weaken society’s support for the movement’s more belligerent elements, which have closed down the airport and caused damage to subway stations – all of which has been damaging to this crucial economic hub.

The protest’s top demand was the withdrawal of the bill, but there were others, including the creation of an independent commission of inquiry, largely to look into charges around police abuse of power. Ms. Lam made some movement to respond to this as well, announcing a new body – which would include community leaders, professionals and academics – “to independently examine and review society’s deep-seated problems and to advise the government on finding solutions.” It’s not an independent commission, but it’s something.

Separately, Ms. Lam appointed two new members to the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which is investigating the role of the police. The IPCC is led by Anthony Neoh, a respected lawyer, but it is packed with pro-government politicians. The appointment of Helen Yu, who was with the Independent Commission Against Corruption in its earliest days, and Paul Lam, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, is likely to enhance the credibility of the council.

The protesters’ other demands, however – including changing the description of protests as riots, amnesty for arrested protesters and universal suffrage – have not been addressed. And at a “civilians’ press conference,” two masked protesters reiterated that all five demands have to be met, “not one less.” Still, despite this initial response, the moves by the government are welcome after months of retrenchment, and could serve to take the wind out of the sails of the popular movement against Beijing and Hong Kong’s governments.

Too bad it didn’t come earlier.

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