The government of Hong Kong issued a statement Sunday apologizing to its people for triggering widespread protests with a proposed extradition bill many fear could result in the mass incarceration of pro-democracy Hong Kongers to communist China. The apology appeared to do little to quell calls for chief executive Carrie Lam to resign.
“The chief executive admits that large-scale confrontation and conflict took place in Hong Kong society due to the inadequacy of the government’s work, causing many residents to be disappointed and saddened,” the government said in a statement, according to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), adding:
Having regard to the strong and different views in society, the government has suspended the legislative amendment exercise at the full Legislative Council with a view to restoring calmness in society as soon as possible and avoiding any injuries to any person. The government reiterated that there is no timetable for restarting the process.
“The chief executive apologises to the public, and promises that [she] will accept criticism in the most sincere and humble way,” the government statement added. Lam herself made remarks on Saturday, urging Hong Kong to “give [her] another chance,” but she did not offer an apology as contrite as the one the government issued in the statement on her behalf.
The response to Lam’s call for the people to give her another chance Saturday was a protest the next day that attracted nearly two million people, almost double the number that came out to protest against her last week. The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group organizing the protests, put out the estimate on Monday, which the HKFP noted would amount to nearly 30 percent of the entire population of Hong Kong. The group explicitly rejected Lam’s apology in their statement.
“Facing such public rage, Carrie Lam simply makes apology through a press release, for ‘the inadequate work of the government’ but not for pushing to pass the bill or police’s crackdown on protesters,” the statement read. “She even stressed that she would continue to serve the citizens. This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street! Hong Konger will not accept this!”
Protesters also rejected the move to merely table the bill, rather than eradicate it from the legislature permanently; demanded that the government apologize for repeatedly referring to the peaceful protests as “riots;” and demanded an apology for using rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons to attack protesters, then accusing the protesters of being violent.
While apologizing for the extradition bill, the government did not apologize for calling the protests “riots”; instead, an adviser to Lam denied that they had.
“I don’t want people to think that the chief executive and the government are saying the students are rioters … The government did not categorise the events on a particular date as a riot,” Lam Ching-choi, a member of the Executive Council, said following the apology statement.
Lam, personally, lost significant goodwill with her attitude against the protesters.
“(An) apology is not enough,” a teenaged protester identified as Victor Li told Reuters. On the other end of the age spectrum, an 80-year-old protester told the Morning Post, “Carrie Lam should really reflect on herself and apologise. She should also think about whether she has the capacity to be the city’s leader.”
Lee Wai-po said he had never been to a protest until last week.
As the South China Morning Post‘s Luisa Tam noted on Monday, Lam compared protesters to ungrateful and undisciplined children and described herself as the mother of Hong Kong.
“In a recent television interview, Lam said that if she gives in to every demand from her son, he would be spoiled, end up regretting getting everything he wanted, and he would blame her for not teaching him how to distinguish right from the wrong,” Tam relayed, an analogy that she noted outraged many protesters given its patronizing language and one that many mothers of protesters rejected. One group of mothers wrote in a petition to oppose the extradition bill, “We would definitely not use tear gas, potentially lethal rubber bullets and beanbag rounds on our children, and we would not remain unmoved on seeing young people covered with blood after being bashed by police batons.”
Lam appears to also have lost some support within her political faction. Speaking anonymously, a “pro-establishment lawmaker” told the South China Morning Post that he considered Lam’s response to the protests “not ideal” and that she “sounded too tough,” inspiring more protests rather than calming the political climate. “While she could not accept people’s calls for her to resign, she also suggested that the people were wrong,” the lawmaker said. “I don’t know what was she trying to tell Hong Kong people in her press conference.”
Another anonymous lawmaker said that even supporters of the extradition bill have soured on Lam because of her “attitude” and “that she feels she’s always right.”
Joining the chorus of disapproval Monday was former Secretary for transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who urged Lam in an interview to fully withdraw the extradition bill instead of merely tabling it.
“The crisis underscores the complete failure of our political system. The central government can no longer expect the problems in Hong Kong to be resolved by focusing on economic and livelihood issues, while avoiding political reform,” Cheung said, suggesting Lam owed the public an apology in person.
Hong Kongers have for years expressed fears that the Chinese communist government would violate their “one country, two systems” agreement that grants China sovereignty over Hong Kong but not political control to erode its capitalist freedoms. Thousands of Hong Kongers marched on New Year’s Day against growing Chinese influence in the city, as China revealed a plan to connect Hong Kong and Macau into one large “Bay Area” and more than 100,000 organized to honor those killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre early this month.
The extradition bill has alarmed many, as it would allow Hong Kong to extradite its citizens to China for violating Chinese law. The Communist Party routinely disregards many basic international human rights conventions and considers exercises of free speech and religion crimes. Protesters in Hong Kong expressed concerns that the government could extradite them for publicly criticizing communism or worshipping in private.