Hong Kong’s Leader Scraps Extradition Bill That Sparked Historic Unrest
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong’s Leader Scraps Extradition Bill That Sparked Historic Unrest

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, formally withdrew legislation to allow extraditions to China, a political retreat that may help ease -- but not end -- months of unrest in the Asian financial hub.

Lam announced the move in a televised address Wednesday, after a meeting with pro-establishment politicians including local legislators and the city’s representatives to national legislative bodies. She also pledged an independent study of the government’s performance and reaffirmed her commitment to reviewing the police actions -- while saying she couldn’t accept other protester demands such as dropping rioting charges against demonstrators.

“Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” Lam said, seated at a desk, her hands folded. “We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times.”

Hong Kong stocks jumped, led by property developers, after news reports that she would withdraw bill. The benchmark Hang Seng Index rose 3.9% -- the biggest gain since November -- before her speech, although futures slipped after she made clear that she wouldn’t meet some protester demands.

Hong Kong’s Leader Scraps Extradition Bill That Sparked Historic Unrest

“Carrie Lam’s so-called concessions have come too little too late, the damage is done, the scars and wounds are still bleeding in Hong Kong,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, who has been a prominent participant in some of the biggest marches, told a briefing after the announcement. “If she thinks she can use some garden hose to put out some hill fire, that’s not possible.”

The online forum LIHKG -- a popular sounding board and organizing platform for protesters -- also indicated disappointment with Lam’s action. A post titled “Two out of five demands met. Do we accept?” garnered 415 thumb-downs in less than 15 minutes.

Lam’s 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 tear gas, 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.

Hong Kong’s Leader Scraps Extradition Bill That Sparked Historic Unrest

Although 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, Tears’

Still, it wasn’t 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.

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.

Hong Kong’s Leader Scraps Extradition Bill That Sparked Historic Unrest

Controversial Law

Opponents had said the bill threatened the city’s tenuous autonomy from China and undermined its reputation as a global financial center. 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 toward 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 fueled 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 don’t have an extradition agreement with Hong Kong. Lam and the law’s backers originally defended it as necessary to ensure the city wouldn’t 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 couldn’t be sent back to the island to stand trial as there’s no framework to do so.

Pro-establishment lawmaker, 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.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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