Carrie Lam has announced the formal withdrawal of Hong Kong’s extradition bill
The bill would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be sent to China to face trial
Hong Kong police fired beanbag rounds in late night skirmishes with protesters
Hong Kong is scrapping the hated extradition bill which has sparked months of protests and violence in the city.
Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced the bill’s withdrawal at a meeting with lawmakers today and confirmed it in a public statement in which she called for dialogue with protesters but refused to meet several other demands.
The bill, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, sparked angry protests which have since mushroomed into a wider rebellion and demands for more democracy.
Dropping the bill was one of protesters’ five demands, but they also want arrested protesters to be released, Lam to resign, an inquiry held into police brutality and the government to stop referring to the protests as ‘riots’.
Today Hong Kong’s stock market soared on the news but some protesters dismissed the gesture as ‘too little, too late’.
Police storm aboard a bus to arrest people suspected of being anti-government protesters at Kowloon Bay Station in Hong Kong last night
Lam has previously said the bill was ‘dead’ and admitted she had caused ‘unforgivable havoc’ by introducing it.
‘The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns,’ she said today.
‘Let’s replace conflicts with conversations and let’s look for solutions,’ she said, adding: ‘We must find ways to address the discontent in society and to look for solutions.’
It is unclear whether scrapping the bill will end the unrest, as protests continued apace after it was effectively shelved on June 15.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets since mid-June in sometimes violent protests calling for greater democracy.
Demonstrators have been urging the government to meet all of the ‘five demands, not one less’.
But Lam said the detained protesters would not be released, and appointed two new members to a police watchdog but resisted calls for a full inquiry.
‘Too little, too late,’ said Joshua Wong, a prominent activist who was arrested late last week as part of a police swoop of leading pro-democracy figures.
Speaking to the press today, lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said the withdrawal would come ‘too late’ to ease the situation because ‘the focus of society is no long on the retraction of the law amendment’.
Tien said it was necessary for the government to set up an independent enquiry committee formed by people with neutral political stance to investigate the behaviour of the police as well as the protesters.
‘We need all five demands, the damage is done. She should have used the word ‘withdraw’ and it would have appeased society, now it is too late,’ said pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo.
Police in riot gear stand guard at a bus stop after checking alleged anti-government protesters suspected of joining a protest in Wong Tai Sin which resulted in a stand-off with police
Leung Yiu Ting, the president of a student union, warned that ‘until the five demands are met, I don’t think the protests and the social movement will stop.’
Online message forums used by the largely leaderless movement to organise were filled with angry comments saying a withdrawal of the bill would not end the protests.
‘More than 1,000 people have been arrested, countless injured,’ one widely shared message on the Telegram messaging app read.
However, Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index rose rapidly today amid hopes of defusing the crisis.
Companies including HSBC rose 3.4 per cent and troubled airliner Cathay Pacific soared nearly nine percent.
The flagship carrier has had a torrid few weeks after Chinese state media and authorities excoriated the company because some of its 27,000 employees had taken part in or were sympathetic to the protests.
‘All the efforts we have done are worthwhile,’ university student Jessica, 23, said of the withdrawal reports, while adding that not all their demands had been met.
‘Even though it’s not the result we expected. I believe that this issue has made Hong Kong more united.’
Man-Kei Tam of Amnesty International in Hong Kong said: ‘While the formal withdrawal of this dangerous bill, at long last, is welcome, this announcement cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the government.’
There were no reports about the withdrawal in mainland Chinese media on Wednesday morning.
On the trending topics page on Twitter-like Weibo, posts related to Hong Kong included one that showed the wife of Singaporean Prime Minister showing her support to Hong Kong police on Facebook.
The extradition law, which would cover Hong Kong’s 7.4million residents as well as foreign and Chinese nationals in the city, would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
Protesters saw it as a threat to the rule of law in the former British colony, putting people at the mercy of China’s justice system despite the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement which gives Hong Kong greater freedoms than the mainland.
Anger over the proposed law had been bubbling since February, then exploded in June into the city’s largest and most violent protests in decades.
Even after the bill was suspended, critics feared it could be revived next year.
Sources told local media that the ‘gesture to formally withdraw is a bid to cool down the atmosphere’.
However, other government insiders appeared to play the move down, describing it as a merely procedural step.
The protesters’ demands also include dropping charges against more than 1,000 people who have been arrested.
In late-night skirmishes on Tuesday, riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station.
One man was taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.
Videos showing the man being apprehended by the police in the station have been widely shared on social media with protest groups and activists saying it is evidence of the police brutality they want investigated.
Police have rejected those claims, deny on Monday that they ‘beat up’ ordinary citizens without first confirming their identities.
Three men, aged between 21 and 42, were taken to Kwong Wa Hospital late on Tuesday, a hospital authority spokeswoman said.
This week tens of thousands of students in Hong Kong boycotted the first day of school as part of a city-wide strike.
High school students added gas masks, goggles and hard hats to their traditional uniforms, while university pupils crowded into a square at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Workers also staged their own rally at a public park, braving strong winds and storm clouds as a typhoon threatened.
Some demonstrators disrupted the morning commute on Monday by blocking train doors, attempting to evade riot police.
According to a leaked audio recording, Hong Kong leader Lam said last week she now has ‘very limited’ room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China.
Beijing has taken an increasingly hard line against the protests, seeing them as a challenge to its sovereignty.
Yang Guang, a spokesperson for mainland China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council, yesterday said the situation in Hong Kong was ‘complex’ and ‘tough’.
He called a small group of activists ‘rioters through and through’ who had carried out ‘hair-raising crimes’.
He added: ‘We firmly support Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in leading the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government’.
Yang also called the anti-government movement ‘political terrorism’ and ‘political hijack’.
Lam said in the recording that she would step down if she had a choice, fuelling protesters’ claims that China is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.
She said she had little influence ‘in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world’.
That was a reference to the spiralling trade war between China and the United States which has escalated again in recent months.
Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.
On Tuesday she said she had never discussed resignation with Beijing and believed her government could solve the crisis without Beijing’s help.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula that allows it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Hong Kong residents have freedom of speech, unfettered access to the internet and an independent judiciary.
The extradition bill therefore fuelled widespread anger amid fears of creeping influence from Beijing.
The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.
China has denounced the protests and warned about the impact on Hong Kong’s economy.
With protesters and Lam’s government at an impasse there are concerns Hong Kong’s economy could go into a tailspin, with signs already that money is moving out to other financial centres, including Singapore.
Hong Kong’s private sector activity declined at the fastest pace in more than a decade in August as protests and an escalating trade war hit demand, data showed today.
Beijing denies it is meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs but warned again on Tuesday that it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.
It has also said that giving Hong Kong universal suffrage is out of the question.
However, Lam said the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong.