HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, on Saturday said a divisive bill that would allow extraditions to China will be “suspended” indefinitely — a major climb-down by her government after a week of unprecedented protests.
Lam has come under huge pressure to abandon the controversial legislation, including from her allies and advisers.
“The government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more … work and listen to different views of society,” the pro-Beijing leader told reporters.
“We have no intention to set a deadline for this work and promise to report to and consult members of the Legislative Council panel on security before we decide on the next step forward.”
The international finance hub on Wednesday was rocked by the worst political violence since its 1997 handover to China, when tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.Opponents of the bill, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note that China’s justice system is controlled by the Communist Party and is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.
As criticism mounted, signs also emerged of a growing discomfort among Communist Party leaders in Beijing, and Lam held her news conference at the same government complex that was besieged by protesters earlier in the week.
The South China Morning Post said Lam held an emergency meeting Friday night with her advisers and Chinese officials were also meeting in the nearby city of Shenzhen to map a way out of the impasse.
Tensions were running high, with protest organizers planning another mass rally Sunday,when in addition to calling for the bill to be completely dropped, they plan to also push for accountability of the police for the way protests have been handled.
Lam, who is appointed by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, had previously refused to consider abandoning the bill despite months of criticism from business and legal bodies — and a record-breaking rally last Sunday in which more than 1 million protesters hit the streets, according to its organizers.
“I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years,” Lam said.
On Friday she found herself facing growing calls from within her own political camp to reverse course and tamp down spiraling public anger — including from hard-line pro-Beijing lawmakers.
“Shouldn’t (we) cool the citizens down? I think to postpone it for a little bit is not a bad thing. At this moment, the government should self-examine,” Ann Chiang, a hard-core pro-Beijing lawmaker, told i-Cable News.
But others have warned against Lam bending to the protesters.
“If the government caves in to violence and external influences, in the long run that would also make Hong Kong ungovernable,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip told reporters.
Opposition to the extradition bill has united an unusually wide cross section of Hong Kong.
James To, a lawmaker from the city’s pan-democratic camp, called on Lam to step down. “The credibility of our chief executive has already been written off, it’s a kind of government that cannot have any credibility to rule anymore,” he told reporters Friday.Anson Chan, a former chief secretary for Hong Kong, said Friday in an interview that Lam still could keep her post if she backs down. “What the people are attempting to tell is that we are very worried about the consequences of passing the extradition bill, because no one will feel safe, even in their own beds, after passage of this bill,” Chan said. “It places everybody’s individual freedom and safety at risk,” said Chan, who as chief secretary was the top local civil servant under former British Gov. Chris Patten.
Beijing has vocally supported the bill and earlier in the week threw its full support behind the Lam administration, calling protesters “rioters.”
But it has since sought to distance itself as public anger spiraled.
“The central government gave no instruction, no order about the … amendment,” Lu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain, told the BBC. “This amendment was initiated by the Hong Kong government.”
On Friday night, thousands of parents gathered in a park in the heart of the city’s commercial district to condemn the use of rubber bullets and tear gas against predominantly young protesters on Wednesday.
Y. Chan, a 50-year-old mother of two, said she was outraged watching the scenes unfold.
“It’s calling for all mothers who had enough already of what happened the other day,” she said. “My kids were out there also that day. And although I want them to be safe, want them to be at home, but this is their home. They are defending it.”
The extradition bill has drawn criticism from U.S. and British lawmakers and human rights groups, prompting Beijing to lash back with warnings against “interference” in its internal affairs.