Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday announced she would formally withdrawal a bill allowing extradition to mainland China to “allay public concerns,” meeting the least difficult of the five protester demands amid a deepening political crisis.
Lam, however, stopped short of announcing a fully independent investigation into the crisis including the police’s response and use of force – and many are already rejecting her concessions as too little and too late.
She had already suspended work on the bill in June, but a day later, about 2 million people took to the streets, the first clear indication that it was an insufficient step. Lam then labeled it “dead,” but the protests continued; growing in intensity, scale and scope. Protesters had insisted that she fully withdraw it from the legislative agenda, which requires a formal process.
After meeting with her Cabinet, pro-Beijing lawmakers and others in her government, Lam in a televised address played across Hong Kong television stations said incidents in recent months that have “shocked and saddened people.”
“We should all think deeply whether escalating violence and disturbances is the answer,” she said in the address, before announcing four steps that she would take to kick-start a dialogue with the public, among these the a full withdrawal of the extradition bill.
Initial reactions by protesters to the report suggest that this step, too, will be insufficient to calm the unrest.
The possibility of being extradited to face the justice system in mainland China sparked massive demonstrations in Hong Kong over the summer. Even after the bill’s suspension, protesters worried that it could be revived at any time if it continued to be on the legislative agenda.
Since June, however, the demonstrations – which have at times turned violent and provoked an increasingly harsh police response – have moved beyond just the bill. Protesters have settled on a list of five demands, among them universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leaders and an investigation into the crisis including the police response over the past three months.
Until now, Lam has rejected all the protester’s demands.
“So far, there has been a no to everything,” said Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker. “I hope there’s a yes to something.”
He added that while fully withdrawing the bill was the “right thing” to do, it was likely too late to have an impact.
“The focus since the beginning of July has completely shifted now to the confrontation between police and rioters, and how the public perceives it,” he said. “The public is totally polarized, but it is no longer about the extradition bill.”
Dozens of journalists gathered outside the gate to Lam’s official residence, Government House, shortly before 4 p.m. local time. A stream of cars and vans pulled into the colonial-era compound located in the central district of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong returned to Beijing’s control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that allowed the city to maintain its own internal governing rules.
Political crises have erupted periodically in the semiautonomous territory, however, over fears that the Chinese government is seeking to exercise greater control, most recently in 2014 when Beijing rejected full universal suffrage for Hong Kong.
On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app used by protesters to help organize demonstrations, Lam’s decision was met with resistance. In protest related channels, users circulated the slogan, “five demands, not one less.” Others forwarded a quote from Winter on Fire a documentary film about Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan protests, “if we accept the government’s demands, those who have died will not forgive us.”
Of the five protester demands, many believe that two in particular – fully withdrawing the bill and opening an independent inquiry into the crisis – were most needed in the short-term to address the anger that continues to erupt on city streets.
A consensus has emerged even among moderates and pro-Beijing lawmakers that an independent inquiry is needed to address a hardening rupture between a majority of the public and the police.
Lam, however, has so far resisted, fearing a negative response from the police force.
Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the centrist political group Third Side, who met with Lam last month during a listening session with moderate politicians, is among those who back the independent inquiry. Her concessions, he said, were insufficient and the government needed to offer “something more.”
Tien, the pro-Beijing lawmaker, added that if grievances between the police and the public are not addressed “people are going to be carrying around this hatred for many years.”
Hong Kong stocks surged on the reports that the bill would be formally withdrawn, leaping more than 3 percent on Wednesday afternoon.
Some believe however that the crisis has fundamentally eroded business confidence in Hong Kong, and revealed the extent of Beijing’s ability to pressure even multinational corporations in the city.
The most glaring example of this is the upheaval and panic at Cathay Pacific, whose chief executive was effectively pushed out over concerns from China that the airline had not done enough to keep its staff from supporting the protests. On Wednesday afternoon, the airline announced that its chairman John Slosar had resigned too and would retire after the Nov. 6 board meeting.
“I am sure that everyone at the Cathay Pacific Group would agree that recent weeks have brought some of the most extraordinary and challenging times we have ever experienced,” Slosar said in an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post. “I can well appreciate that such volatility can cause concern over what the future may hold.”
His retirement would mean that all of the airline’s top leadership have been replaced after pressure from Beijing.
One business executive, speaking on a condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the pressure on Cathay was a “real shot across the bow” which sent “shock waves” across the business community.
“There is a lingering question about what really happens in the long-run, will there be a solution to the issues Hong Kong is facing?” the executive added.
Jasper Tsang, a former senior official in the Hong Kong government who continues to be a confidante and adviser to Lam, said in an interview Tuesday that concessions aside, the crisis has already done serious damage to Hong Kong.
“It is not easy to make a full assessment yet,” he said. “And even after the violent protest stops, it will take some time, a lot of patience, a lot of hard work to pick up the pieces and put them back together if we can.”
“Humpty Dumpty has fallen. We don’t know whether we can put the broken pieces back together,” he added.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Shibani Mahtani, Timothy McLaughlin