Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Saturday that a proposed extradition bill will be suspended, handing a stunning victory to thousands of protesters who packed the streets for a week to oppose legislation strongly desired by the mainland Chinese government.
Lam told a press conference on Saturday that a growing number of pro-Beijing lawmakers urged her to suspend the bill after massive protests. She added that Taiwan struck a blow against the extradition law by stating it would refuse to accept the murder suspect whose case was commonly cited as a justification for changing Hong Kong’s extradition law.
Critics were deeply concerned about making extradition easier to China, which has an abysmal human rights record and a highly politicized justice system. Demonstrators feared passage of the bill would strike a mortal blow against Hong Kong’s unique autonomy and subject them to abusive prosecutions by the Chinese Communist Party.
“The urgency of passing this bill within this term has maybe disappeared,” said Lam, claiming the Taiwanese murder case was the true reason she pushed so hard for the bill, not her political allegiance to Beijing.
Lam cited two occasions when the extradition bill was amended to address public concerns, but conceded opposition to the legislation was too strong to ignore. She claimed her “explanation and communication work has not been sufficient or effective.”
Lam chastised the protesters for disrupting Hong Kong and blamed them for “a number of police officers, media workers, and other members of the public being injured,” but then gave the protest movement what it wanted:
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 and avoiding any more injuries to law enforcement officers and citizens.
I am grateful for the views of many pro-establishment legislators and leaders of various community sectors conveyed to me over the last few days either openly or in private, that we should pause and think instead of resuming the Second Reading debate on the bill at the Legislative Council as scheduled. This would prevent dealing a further blow to society.
[…] 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.
“I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and dispute in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years, disappointing many people,” Lam concluded.
Opposition leaders immediately pressed their advantage, with Carrie Mo demanding Lam permanently cancel the extradition bill and resign. She said it was “shameful” for Lam to continue pretending the Taiwanese murder case was the reason pro-Beijing lawmakers pushed so hard for legislation clearly despised by Hong Kongers.
“If you won’t retract the bill, we won’t retreat,” Mo said, adding that Lam should apologize for blaming the excessively violent police response on demonstrators and promise that none of the protesters would be charged with rioting, an offense that can carry up to ten years in prison.
“Carrie Lam has lost all credibility among all Hong Kong people. She must step down,” Mo declared.
Several other protest leaders said rallies and strikes planned for Sunday and Monday will proceed unless Lam resigns, jailed protesters are released, and the extradition bill is permanently, irrevocably canceled.
The Chinese government said on Saturday it respects Lam’s decision to suspend the bill and “listen more widely to the views of the community and restore calm to the community as soon as possible.”
“We support, respect and understand this decision,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
Geng insisted demonstrators misunderstand the extradition bill, and Beijing still believes it is necessary.
“The rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents are fully protected in accordance with the law. The facts are obvious to all. Maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is not only in the interests of China but also in the interests of all countries in the world,” he said.
According to reports in Chinese media, Lam met with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng on Friday night and then called a meeting with her cabinet, suggesting Zheng gave her permission to suspend the extradition bill.
“They would have indicated to Carrie… that this just has to end. She didn’t understand what she was doing,” London-based political scientist Steve Tsang told Reuters of Lam’s meeting with the Chinese premier.
“I think Carrie Lam’s days are numbered,” Tsang predicted. “Beijing cannot afford to sack her right away, because that would be an indication of weakness.”