HONG KONG >> Backing down after days of huge street protests, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said on Saturday that she would indefinitely suspend a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
It was a remarkable reversal for Lam, the leader installed by Beijing in 2017, who had vowed to ensure the bill’s approval and tried to get it passed on an unusually short timetable, even as hundreds of thousands demonstrated against it this week.
City leaders hope that delaying the legislation will cool public anger and avoid more violence in the streets, said people with detailed knowledge of the government’s plans, including advisers to Lam.
Lam and her superiors in Beijing were reluctant to withdraw the bill outright, as the pro-democracy opposition had demanded, but they have no plans to make another push for it, the people said in interviews Friday evening and Saturday morning. They insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the governments.
A full withdrawal of the legislation would recall the government’s reversals in the face of public objections to other contentious bills that were seen as infringing on Hong Kong’s liberties — national security legislation, in 2003, and compulsory patriotic education legislation, in 2012.
Before Lam’s announcement on Saturday afternoon, leading opposition figures said a mere postponement of the bill would not satisfy the protesters, who had been planning another large demonstration for Sunday.
“As far as democratic legislators are concerned, as far as the young people are concerned, this wouldn’t work because you would only be delaying the pain,” a pro-democracy lawmaker, Claudia Mo, said Friday.
A team of senior Chinese officials and experts met Friday with Lam in Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, to review the situation, a person with detailed knowledge of the government’s policymaking said.
The bill would make it easier for Hong Kong to send people suspected of crimes to jurisdictions with which it has no extradition treaty, including mainland China. Many people in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory with far more civil liberties than the mainland has, fear that the legislation would put anyone in the city at risk of being detained and sent to China for trial by the country’s Communist Party-controlled courts.
Legal experts who raised concerns about how the bill has been handled said it would have to be withdrawn in order to address such worries. Otherwise, voting on the bill could restart at any time, at the discretion of the head of the legislature, which is controlled by pro-Beijing lawmakers, these experts said.
More than 1 million people marched against the bill last Sunday, according to protest leaders, the vast majority of them peacefully. That was followed by street clashes Wednesday, as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators.
Officials believe that delaying the bill will reduce the risk of a young protester being seriously hurt or even killed in clashes with police, then becoming a martyr in the eyes of the public. Dozens of protesters have already been injured.
The Hong Kong government has been dismayed by early signs that mothers of young protesters, who held a candlelight vigil Friday night, were starting to organize themselves. It is strongly averse to seeing the emergence of a group like the mothers of victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing in 1989, who have been active for decades.
City officials hope that delaying the bill will weaken the opposition by draining it of its momentum, without giving the appearance that the government was backing down entirely, according to the people familiar with leaders’ thinking.
Opponents of the bill, suspecting just such a motivation on the government’s part, said before Lam’s news conference that it must be completely abandoned.
“We can’t accept it will just be suspended,” Minnie Li, a lecturer with the Education University of Hong Kong who joined a hunger strike this week, said Saturday morning. “We demand it to be withdrawn. The amendment itself is unreasonable. Suspension just means having a break and will continue later. What we want is for it to be withdrawn. We can’t accept it.”
Demonstrators have called for Lam to resign, but officials in Hong Kong and Beijing have brushed those demands aside and she was expected to remain in office.
Underlying opposition to the extradition bill is a growing fear that the freedoms that people in Hong Kong enjoy under the “one country, two systems” policy, put in place when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, are rapidly shrinking.
On Friday, a top adviser to Lam and a pro-Beijing lawmaker said publicly that the bill should be delayed.
Responding to local media reports Saturday about a possible delay of the bill, Emily Lau, a former lawmaker and chairwoman of the city’s Democratic Party, said that she doubted the public would be quelled by such a move.
“People are asking for the bill to be withdrawn. If you just delay it, that means they can just resume the second reading whenever they like,” Lau said. She added that a delay would simply result in another big turnout for the march Sunday.
“There is always a sword hanging over our heads and I don’t think the public will accept it,” she said.