Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has announced the indefinite postponement of a proposed law allowing extraditions to mainland China that sparked widespread anger and protests.
The unpopular bill would be suspended, she told a press conference, adding that she wanted to restore public order following a week of violent demonstrations.
Critics of the extradition bill, which covers Hong Kong’s seven million residents, foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city, claimed it threatened the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international status.
Around 1 million people, according to protest organisers, marched through Hong Kong to oppose the bill earlier this week. Protests that continued over recent days were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from police, piling heavy pressure on Ms Lam to change course.
Ms Lam said the city’s legislature would stop all work on the bill and next steps would be decided after consultation.
The embattled leader said the government would keep “an open mind” and she would “adopt a sincere and humble attitude in accepting criticism” over her handling of the issue.
Government support for the extradition bill began to waver on Friday with several pro-Beijing politicians and a senior advisor to Ms Lam saying discussion of the bill should be shelved for the time being.
The territory’s chief executive had claimed the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals using Hong Kong as a place to hide and that human rights would still be protected by the city’s court, which will decide on the extraditions on a case-by-case basis.
Backing down from efforts to drive the bill through the city’s legislature appeared unthinkable only last week as Ms Lam remained defiant about the law’s passage.
Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill had spooked some of Hong Kong’s tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers in the city.
Senior police officers also said Ms Lam’s refusal to heed public opinion was sowing resentment in the force, which was already battered by accusations of police brutality during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.
Prior to Ms Lam’s announcement, Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, said he supported a suspension of the bill without a timetable but also insisted total withdrawal of the bill was unlikely.
What is actually going on in Hong Kong?
“The amendment is supported by the central government, so I think a withdrawal would send a political message that the central government is wrong. This would not happen under “one country, two systems”,” he said, referring to the model under which Hong Kong enjoys semi-autonomy from China.
Despite the government appearing to back down, protesters from the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) told the South China Morning Post a demonstration planned for Sunday would go ahead. In addition to opposing the bill they are calling for accountability for the way protests have been handled by police.
Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note that China’s justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.
Last Sunday’s protest in the former British colony was the biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, when the “one country, two systems” agreement was established to guarantee Hong Kong’s special autonomy – including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
Many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Beijing has however, denied that it has overreached in Hong Kong.
By Dominic C. Odoh
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