Hong Kong Leader’s Retreat Over Bill Fails to Satisfy Protesters
(Bloomberg) -- Carrie Lam’s move to formally withdraw a bill allowing extraditions to China may well have ended the Hong Kong unrest in June. But now protesters want a lot more, and they’re ready and willing to fight.
After three months of at-times violent demonstrations, Hong Kong’s leader made her most significant concession yet on Wednesday evening. In a somber televised address, she told an anxious city that she was meeting a demand from protesters to officially scrap a proposal that ended up sparking the worst unrest since the former colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
“Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” she said. “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.”
But before she had even spoken, pro-democracy activists and lawmakers were already saying Lam’s concession was too little, too late. They want their other four demands met, most significantly a longstanding push to nominate and elect their own leaders -- a proposal Beijing explicitly ruled out this week.
“Hong Kong people will not be satisfied, which is absolutely reasonable after three months of blood, sweat and tears,” said Alvin Yeung, an opposition lawmaker.
Lam was scheduled to hold a news conference at 11:15 a.m. to discuss her plans.
The next few weeks will tell whether Lam -- and her backers in Beijing -- bet correctly that relenting on one key demand would deflate a protest movement that has only gotten more violent. President Xi Jinping is also facing a broader economic slowdown in China as he spars on trade with U.S. President Donald Trump.
While investors reacted positively, giving the local benchmark Hang Seng Index its biggest gain in 10 months, most analysts saw the jump as a temporary bounce for a market that has been battered in recent months. The MSCI Hong Kong Index, which includes no mainland Chinese stocks, fell as much as 1.1% Thursday.
“It’s positive but may only provide a temporary solution,” said Stephen Innes, Asia Pacific Market Strategist at AxiTrader. “I can’t see Hong Kongers going merrily along. I think the divide runs deeper.”
For Beijing, the move amounts to a shift in tactics as it looks to quell the violence before Xi gives a landmark speech to celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1. A spokesman for the top mainland body overseeing Hong Kong on Tuesday deployed a softer tone in drawing a line between radical protesters and moderates, saying the “majority of Hong Kong’s citizens, including many young students, are taking part in peaceful demonstrations.”
Lam on Wednesday stuck with that line while addressing the five demands of protesters. She downplayed the significance of using the term riot and said she couldn’t give amnesty to demonstrators charged with crimes because it ran contrary to the rule of law.
Although she pledged to launch a study and review of the government’s work, she didn’t meet a demand for an independent commission. And she punted on the demand for universal suffrage, saying any discussions would need to take place “without further polarizing society.”
“Our response to the five demands have been made with full consideration to different constraints and circumstances,” she said. “I recognize these may not be able to address all the grievances of people in society.”
Protesters weren’t pleased. Users of online forum LIHKG -- a popular sounding board and organizing platform for demonstrators -- slammed Lam’s address shortly afterward.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has spoken out frequently since the unrest began, urged Lam to go further in her concessions to protesters.
“The pro-Beijing leadership in Hong Kong must ensure a political system accountable to the people, including granting universal suffrage and investigating police violence,” she said in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans continue to stand united with the people of Hong Kong in demanding the hopeful, free and democratic future that is their right.”
Joshua Wong, the prominent student leader who led a previous wave of pro-democracy protests in 2014 and was recently arrested over his role in a rally, warned that a crackdown was coming: “Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights.”
More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested so far as they hold running battles with police. The most recent clashes last weekend saw protesters set a massive roadblock on fire in central Hong Kong and hurl around 100 Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with water cannons and tear gas.
“Carrie Lam could use the bill’s withdrawal as a pretext to frame protesters as perpetrators of violence,” said Raymond Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong. “As the bill is formally withdrawn, the logic goes, then any ongoing protests must serve ulterior motives such as Hong Kong independence or a color revolution.”
Up to now, some protesters have called for actions of civil disobedience -- like blocking roads, subway lines and access to the airport -- to pressure the government. Lam’s biggest concessions, including the one Wednesday, have come after an escalation of violence, reinforcing the idea that radical actions are more effective than peaceful marches that attract hundreds of thousands of people.
The question now is whether protesters can sustain the momentum to push for their final goals. Lam indicated that she’s put her best offer on the table, and the toughest demand -- universal suffrage -- can only be decided by Beijing.
“Genuine democracy in Hong Kong is not on the agenda, and will not be on the agenda,” said Steve Tsang, director the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of several books on Hong Kong. “They are not just going to get softer and softer and softer. Xi Jinping cannot afford to allow the Hong Kong protesters to win against the Communist Party.”
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