Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam called for an end to protest marches on Thursday and promised to hold constructive dialogue with movement leaders after caving in to one of their key demands and permanently withdrawing the controversial extradition bill. Movement leaders vowed to continue fighting until their other demands are addressed.
Lam’s Thursday press conference was her first public commentary after releasing a video message on Wednesday announcing the demise of the extradition bill.
Lam said she killed the bill to “help prevent violence and stop chaos as soon as possible, resume the social order and help our economy and people’s livelihood to move forward.” She said she made the decision on her own but had the full “respect” and “support” of the Chinese government.
Lam acknowledged that the protests were about more than just the extradition bill, but she also tried to divide the movement into “moderate” and “extreme” factions, encouraging the former to renounce the latter and engage in a constructive dialogue with her administration. Protest leaders denounced this gambit and insisted they would continue demonstrating until all of their concerns are addressed. Plans for more protest marches quickly flooded social media.
One of the first demonstrations after Lam announced the withdrawal of the bill turned into a brawl between police and protesters at the Po Lam railroad station on Wednesday night.
The protesters were angry that the station was closed on Saturday night, the anniversary of the beginning of Hong Kong’s previous round of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014. The demonstrators accused the railroad station manager of bowing to pressure from Beijing by making it harder for them to move around the city.
The Po Lam station wound up getting closed again on Wednesday night due to the scuffle. Another demonstration on Thursday morning shuttered one of the gates at the Hang Hau station.
China’s state-run Global Times could scarcely believe ungrateful protesters refused the injection of “much-needed optimism” provided by Lam’s withdrawal of the extradition bill and warned that insufficient optimism would be punished.
“Though still facing criticism from some radical forces that showed no sign of backing down from violence, for many others, Lam’s plan marks a critical turning point, as genuine concerns over social and economic issues – from housing to employment – should be separated from irrational, ill-intentioned political goals, and society should unite and reject violence,” the Global Times editorialized.
Unsurprisingly, the party line advanced by the Global Times is that Lam ended legitimate protests by promising to permanently withdraw the extradition bill – a very minor concession if Beijing’s previous rhetoric is taken seriously, since they constantly chided the protesters for refusing to accept the bill was informally dead.
As Quartz pointed out on Thursday, it was not the only confusing, hairpin ideological turn the Chinese Communist Party has demanded of its faithful. A good number of Chinese social media posters expressed confusion over the withdrawal of the extradition bill because they have been repeatedly told the protesters were irrational or treasonous to speak out against it. They also appeared keenly aware, and somewhat contemptuous, of the government’s attempt to squelch news about the demise of the extradition bill.
“I don’t understand. If the bill was just, then why retract it? If it wasn’t, then why promulgate it?” asked one commenter on China’s Weibo microblogging service. Another noted that protesters in China get tossed in jail while protesters in Hong Kong get concessions, a sour train of thought Beijing will want to derail quickly.
Protesters have taken to chanting “Five Demands, Not One Less” as a response to the “half an olive branch” offered by Lam’s concession. There seemed to be very little sense of the steam going out of the protest movement; on the contrary, participants seem unfazed by the largely symbolic withdrawal of the bill and braced for Beijing to use the concession as an excuse to crack down on those who continue demonstrating.
“This is like applying a band-aid to rotting flesh,” one protester told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.
“The withdrawal cannot compensate for our blood and tears over the past three months. It was a debt from three months ago, but the government and police have added more debts over the past two months. They are bankrupt on character and ethics,” another elaborated.
Even some Beijing loyalists reportedly thought it was a mistake to pull the bill as such a minimal act of compromise after putting the city through months of unrest. Some suggested another key protest demand, an independent inquiry into excessive police violence, should be granted quickly to defuse some of the public’s anger.
The struggle will probably continue internationally as well. NBC News reported on Thursday that “groups comprised of mostly mainland Chinese immigrants have increasingly been turning up at pro-Hong Kong rallies in major cities across the world,” insulting Hong Kong supporters as traitors and attempting to drown them out with jeers. Some incidents of vandalism and violence have also been noted.