The government of Hong Kong has temporarily halted deliberation on an extradition bill that brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets.
The city’s top leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, said at a news conference on Saturday that second reading of the bill would be suspended to allow the government time to better communicate its aims, a process that would take at least a few months. Critics who have demanded her resignation and the withdrawal of the bill responded with anger, pledging to press ahead with another protest march planned for Sunday.
But Ms. Lam struck a defiant pose, refusing to apologize and repeatedly defending the legislation as a valuable and necessary measure to combat crimes such as money laundering.
“The original purpose of the bill is fully justified, and that’s why we are suspending it, so that we can further communicate, we can listen to the views, so as to improve the bill,” she said. There is no timetable for the suspension.
The extradition bill was designed to ease the ability of other jurisdictions, including mainland China, to legally seize people it deems serious criminals from Hong Kong. Authorities said it would prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives, and pledged to ensure the human rights protection of those extradited. Protesters said they feared the erosion of a judicial firewall between Hong Kong and China, saying the bill would allow Beijing to pursue political opponents on trumped-up criminal charges, and force them to face justice in Chinese courts overseen by the Communist Party.
Ms. Lam spoke three days after a protest that was later called a “riot” by authorities after violence broke out. Demonstrators tossed water bottles and bricks and police responded with rubber bullets, pepper balls and clouds of tear gas.
“As a responsible government, we have to maintain law and order on the one hand, and evaluate the situation for the greater 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.
But government critics immediately dismissed the suspension as inadequate.
“We don’t trust this government and as long as they don’t withdraw this bill we will still be on the streets, and protesting and fighting,” said Denise Ho, a Hong Kong-Canadian pop star who is a prominent activist in the city. She accused Ms. Lam of using a delay as a tactic “in hopes that people’s anger would die down” before pressing through the legislation at a later date.
Ms. Lam indicated that new consultation on the bill was unlikely to be finished before October, the expected release date for Chan Tong-kai, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan. The Hong Kong government initially said it hoped to pass the bill quickly so it could be used to extradite Mr. Chan, who has been jailed on lesser charges in Hong Kong. However, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has said she would not ask for Mr. Chan’s extradition under the proposed bill, which she called an “evil law.”
The Saturday decision to suspend the bill constitutes a major shift for Ms. Lam, who has spent much of the past week making no concessions to critics. On Sunday, organizers estimated that more than a million people joined a march to demand the bill’s withdrawal. The following day Ms. Lam said, “there is very little merit to be gained to delay the bill. It will just cause more anxiety and divisiveness in society.”
On Wednesday, just before a protest that Ms. Lam said brought some 40,000 people to the streets, she likened protesters to petulant children in need of discipline. More than 80 people were injured, and more than a dozen arrested, after chaotic scenes that provoked anger across the city. Human rights groups accused police of breaking international law in their use of force.
Amidst anger over the bill, Ms. Lam’s popularity has sunk to some of the lowest levels ever seen for a leader of Hong Kong.
Critics have called her a “puppet” of Beijing, which has publicly supported the extradition bill – a charge she has denied, saying she was not acting at China’s behest.
On Thursday and Friday, church groups and mothers assembled to sing hymns and demand the bill’s withdrawal.
Opponents of the extradition legislation included young people and students who said they were prepared to resort to non-peaceful means.
But criticism of the bill was widespread in Hong Kong, with judges, lawyers, church groups and business leaders all expressing concern. The American Chamber of Commerce warned it could tarnish the city’s standing as a “secure haven for international business.” Canada also expressed worry, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland saying in a statement this week that “Canada remains concerned about the potential effect these proposals may have on the large number of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence, and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.”
An estimated 300,000 people in Hong Kong hold Canadian passports, making the prospect of extradition from Hong Kong to China a matter of particular concern to Ottawa. One protester this week summarized the stakes of the extradition bill in a single sign: “First: Canadians Kovrig & Spavor Next: You & Me?”
On Saturday, however, Ms. Lam said she acted in part to satisfy the Financial Action Task Force, an international organization headquartered in Paris, which has criticized Hong Kong for legal deficiencies that hamper its ability to combat money laundering.
She said the central government in China supported her decision to delay the bill. To those who accuse her of acting in the interests of Beijing, she responded with a reference to the Basic Law that is Hong Kong’s constitutional document, which mandates “dual responsibility” for the chief executive.
She blamed poor public messaging for the criticism of the bill that has emerged. “I have to admit that our explanations and communications work has not been sufficient or effective,” she said.
She also repeatedly expressed support for police who, she said, had been attacked by “lethal weapons” and should not be “smeared.”
“I think the police force has been exercising self-restraint, and they have tried as much as possible to control the scene,” she said.
Billy Li, a convenor with the Progressive Lawyers Group, demanded an independent inquiry into police conduct. Suspension of the bill is likely to diminish the numbers of people who protest Sunday, he said, although “I would still expect a massive turnout. Because we witnessed how students and young people were beaten up and assaulted by the police on Wednesday. That is something that we must not leave aside so easily.”
Ms. Lam, he added, ”does not need to apologize. She just needs to step down. I don’t need her apology. Just go away.”
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