Carrie Lam. Picture: REUTERS/BOBBY YIP
Carrie Lam. Picture: REUTERS/BOBBY YIP

Hong Kong — Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, said she had formally withdrawn legislation to allow extraditions to China, an about-face that may help ease — but not end — months of unrest in the Asian financial centre.

Lam announced the move in a televised address on Wednesday, after a meeting with pro-establishment politicians including local legislators and the city’s representatives to national legislative bodies. She also announced an independent study of the government’s performance and reaffirmed her commitment to reviewing the police’s response to the protests.

“The things that have happened in the past two months have made everyone shocked and sad,” Lam said, seated at a desk, her hands folded. “People are anxious. They want to move on from the current deadlock now.”

Hong Kong stocks jumped, led by property developers, after news reports said Lam will formally withdraw the extradition bill that’s sparked months of protests. The benchmark Hang Seng index rose 3.9% — the biggest gain since November — before her speech, though futures slipped after other protester demands went unmet in her remarks.

The move follows a weekend of demonstrations that saw some of the fiercest clashes between protesters and riot police. Activists have lobbed petrol bombs and set bonfires in the streets, while police officers fired teargas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, making more than 1,100 arrests since early June.

The turmoil that followed Lam’s attempt to introduce the ill-fated bill — including mass marches that drew more than 1-million people and protests that shut the city’s busy airport — have turned into the biggest crisis for Beijing’s rule over the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Aggressive police tactics, threats by Beijing to deploy troops and sweeping arrests of pro-democracy figures have raised fears about Hong Kong’s autonomy and drawn international condemnation.

Though Lam had previously suspended the bill — saying it was “dead” — her move did little to appease demonstrators, who continued protesting and expanded their demands to include calls for greater democratic freedom. Without the bill’s formal withdrawal, it could be reintroduced in a few days.

‘Blood, sweat and tears’

Still, it was not immediately clear whether the formal withdrawal would end the protests. The action meets only one of five main demands, which also include calls for an independent commission of inquiry into police violence, an amnesty for those who have been arrested and universal suffrage.

“If Carrie is genuine in wanting to restore peace to Hong Kong society, a mere withdrawal of the bill is far from enough,” said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democratic MP. “Hong Kong people will not be satisfied, which is absolutely reasonable after three months of blood, sweat and tears, while police brutality remains our biggest concern.”

Withdrawing the bill may ease anger and bring down the violence, but was unlikely on its own to appease demands for greater democracy and accountability over police tactics, said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University, who has conducted surveys of demonstrators. “Since the core slogan has always been ‘five demands, every one of them’, they will continue to fight for the rest,” Yuen said.

Controversial law

Opponents had said the bill threatened the city’s tenuous autonomy from China and undermined its reputation as a global financial centre. Lam’s Beijing-backed government had faced growing public concern that China, emboldened by its rising economic power, was less committed to Hong Kong’s colonial-era guarantees of independent courts, free speech and capitalist markets.

On Tuesday, Lam addressed a Reuters report of a leaked audio recording in which she said she had “very, very, very limited” room to meet the demands of protesters and would quit “if I had the choice”. Speaking to reporters, she said she had “not even contemplated to discuss a resignation with the central people’s government”.

Meanwhile, Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong softened their tone towards the city’s protesters, saying peaceful demonstrations were allowed under the law, even as it ruled out a fundamental demand for direct democracy that has fuelled the unrest. They also reaffirmed support for Lam and her government.

The extradition bill was originally proposed by Hong Kong’s government in February and covered mainland China and other jurisdictions that do not have an extradition agreement with Hong Kong. Lam and the law’s backers originally defended it as necessary to ensure the city would not become a refuge for suspected fugitives.

Her push to pass it before the end of the legislative period in July was sparked by the case of a local man accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan. He was arrested in Hong Kong and convicted of money laundering, but could not be sent back to the island to stand trial as there was no framework to do so.

Another pro-establishment MP, Felix Chung, said that withdrawing the bill would “certainly” help.

“Whether the impact will be a huge one or not, I’m not sure — would have to wait and see,” Chung said. “At least it’s a very positive move, even if it’s a bit late.”

Bloomberg