Hong Kong leader suspends extradition bill, says sorry
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a press conference, Saturday, June 15, 2019, in Hong Kong. Lam said she will suspend a proposed extradition bill indefinitely in response to widespread public unhappiness over the measure, which would enable authorities to send some suspects to stand trial in mainland courts. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Elaine Kurtenbach and Christopher Bodeen, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, June 15, 2019 6:22AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, June 15, 2019 11:14PM EDT
HONG KONG -- Hong Kong was bracing Sunday for another massive protest over an unpopular extradition bill that has highlighted the territory's apprehension about relations with mainland China, a week after the crisis brought as many as 1 million into the streets.
Pro-democracy activists say Chief Executive Carrie Lam's announcement on Saturday that she was suspending work on the bill that would allow some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland Chinese courts is not enough. They want the proposal withdrawn and are calling for Lam to step down.
The communist government in Beijing issued statements backing Lam's decision.
Over the past week, hundreds of thousands marched to demand Lam drop the legislation, which many fear would undermine freedoms enjoyed by this former British colony but not elsewhere in China.
The battle over legislation has evolved into Hong Kong's most severe political test since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city's civil liberties and courts.
On Sunday, mourners laid flowers on the pavement near where a man fell to his death a day earlier after hanging a protest banner on scaffolding on a shopping mall.
Emergency workers tried to cushion the man's fall but failed to catch him.
Critics said Lam should withdraw the plan for good, resign and apologize for police use of potentially lethal force during clashes with protesters on Wednesday.
“Democrats in Hong Kong simply cannot accept this suspension decision,” said lawmaker Claudia Mo. “Because the suspension is temporary. The pain is still there.”
The decision was “too little, too late,” she said.
“Hong Kong people have been lied to so many times,” said Bonny Leung, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the groups that has helped organize the demonstrations.
Lam has said the legislation is needed if Hong Kong to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
China has been excluded from Hong Kong's extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Speaking to reporters after announcing her decision Saturday, Lam sidestepped questions over whether she should quit. She insisted she was not withdrawing the proposed amendment and defended the police.
But she said she was suspending the bill indefinitely. It was time, she said, “for responsible government to restore as quickly as possible this calmness in society.”
“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind,” she said. “We have no intention to set a deadline for this work.”
She emphasized that a chief concern was to avoid further injuries both for the public and for police. About 80 people were hurt in the clashes this past week, more than 20 of them police.
“It's possible there might be even worse confrontations that might be replaced by very serious injuries to my police colleagues and the public,” she said. “I don't want any of those injuries to happen.”
Lam apologized for what she said were failures in her government's work to win public support for the bill, which is opposed by a wide range of sectors in Hong Kong, including many teachers, students, lawyers and trade unions.
But she insisted the bill was still needed. “Give us another chance,” she said.
The extradition bill has drawn criticism from U.S. and British lawmakers and human rights groups, prompting Beijing to lash back with warnings against “interference” in its internal affairs.
But analysts say China also has to weigh the risk of seeing Hong Kong, a vital port and financial centre of 7 million people, possibly losing its special economic status.
Under the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, Beijing needs to abide by its “one country, two systems” promises to respect the territory's legal autonomy for 50 years as promised under the agreement signed with Britain for the 1997 handover.
Already, many here believe the territory's legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing's insistence that it is still honouring those promises.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among the moves in recent years that have undermined that.