Asia Pacific

Calls mount for Hong Kong extradition bill to be suspended

Bloomberg

Hong Kong girded for another mass march against a China-backed extradition bill Sunday as the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, faced new calls to withdraw the legislation after clashes between protesters and police.

The government may suspend the controversial bill to defuse tensions, local media reported. Lam was expected to announce Saturday that she will delay consideration of the extradition bill, Sing Tao Daily reported w ithout saying where it got the information. The chief executive took the decision after discussions with government officials last night, the newspaper said.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized a mass demonstration that drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets last weekend, said it had applied for police permission to stage a similar event. The move comes as allies of Lam began questioning her tactics and lawmakers postponed debate on a controversial extradition bill until at least next week.

On Friday, one of Lam’s top advisers said her administration underestimated the amount of opposition to the bill, casting doubt on whether the law could be rushed through before the end of the legislative period next month. The government is considering options including a pause, rather than withdrawing the bill, the South China Morning Post reported, citing unidentified sources.

“I think it is impossible to discuss under such confrontation. It’s highly difficult,’ Executive Council convener Bernard Chan said on Hong Kong’s RTHK radio. “At least these days, we shouldn’t intensify such confrontation.”

Lam has insisted on pushing ahead with the bill, despite protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets over concerns it would further strengthen Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong. While only a few protesters were still near the legislature Friday, Lam called off an appearance at a technology conference organized by the Wall Street Journal, organizers said.

Pressure on the Hong Kong leader, caught between a restive public and communist rulers in Beijing, is growing, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Calls to amend the plan or for Carrie Lam to step down are coming from many sectors, including business leaders, he noted, adding that it’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing who will decide, not Carrie Lam.

“If the momentum continues to grow, then there is a high possibility that Xi Jinping might strike for a compromise and postpone the bill indefinitely,” Willy Lam said. “There’s a possibility Beijing might strike a compromise and the blame will be put on Carrie Lam.”

Anson Chan, a former chief secretary for Hong Kong, said 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 in an interview.

“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 Patton.

Beijing has condemned the protests but so far has not indicated whether it is planning harsher measures. President Xi, China’s strongest leader in decades, has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing’s dictates, saying it would not tolerate the city becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a foreign-inspired campaign to undermine its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.

“So far everybody is very unhappy with the way the government handled it,” Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garments industries as a pro-establishment member of Hong Kong’s legislature, said in a phone interview. “I believe most people in Hong Kong do not agree with the reasons why it has to be that rushed.”

The police hadn’t yet responded to the Civil Human Rights Front’s request for a permit to march from Victoria Park in the city’s Tin Hau area about 3 km to the government headquarters. The group said they don’t see any reason why police should refuse their request because their events have been peaceful.

Critics say passing the extradition legislation could prompt the U.S. to reconsider the city’s special trading status, drive away foreign companies and imperil critics of the Communist Party.

Bolstering those concerns, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, reintroduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Among other provisions, the measure threatens to freeze U.S. assets of individuals involved in forcibly removing people from Hong Kong. Such individuals also could be denied travel visas.

Hong Kong’s General Chamber of Commerce, which says it represents businesses employing a third of the local workforce, said large-scale protests show the public has “serious apprehensions” about the bill.

“We sincerely urge the government to continue to listen to stakeholders and engage in meaningful dialog with the public,” Aron Harilela, the group’s chairman, said in a statement, adding that it agrees with the underlying principle of the bill.

“We call for restraint from all parties to ensure that this issue will not undermine business confidence in Hong Kong and our international reputation,” Chamber CEO Shirley Yuen added, according to a statement.

Images beamed from the protest Wednesday showed police beating back protesters with batons and crowds running from clouds of tear gas near some of the world’s most recognizable skyscrapers, in an area home to multinational companies, luxury hotels, banks and the U.S. Consulate. Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority confirmed that 72 people had been injured.

The government’s headquarters was closed through Friday, but several main thoroughfares shut down by Wednesday’s standoff were reopened. Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said officers had acted in accordance with guidelines Wednesday and had shot 150 rounds of tear gas at protesters. He said 22 police had been injured.

Opposition lawmakers have repeatedly called for Lam to withdraw the bill. Lam on Wednesday made an emotional defense of the proposal, which she argues is necessary to prevent the city from becoming a refuge for fugitives.

China on Thursday repeated its position that Hong Kong’s affairs should remain “purely internal” and condemned what it said was protester violence.

“No society ruled by law can tolerate such behavior,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing, repeating its support for Hong Kong’s government.

Pelosi, the U.S. House speaker, said Wednesday that the Hong Kong bill’s passage would lead the U.S. to review the city’s special trading privileges. U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke with Lam on Thursday and called on Hong Kong to engage in a dialogue with protesters. The city was returned from British rule in 1997.

U.S. President Donald Trump said he was confident Hong Kong and China would resolve their differences over it. “I’m sure they’ll be able to work it out,” he said.

Chung, the Hong Kong pro-establishment lawmaker, said opponents of the bill were exaggerating its pitfalls and protections were added to safeguard against misuse. The statements by foreign governments questioning the bill have only fueled Beijing’s resolve to pass it even though “it’s not such a big deal to delay it or make amendments,” he said.

“Now it’s been raised to an international, diplomatic level,” Chung said. “That is why the central government and Hong Kong are standing so firm on this bill now.”