Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam suspends extradition Bill after protests; but mass rally goes ahead on Sunday

Remote video URL
Police officers watch over protesters listening to a rally on a pedestrian bridge near the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Police officers patrolling at Tamar Park in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Police officers standing guard outside the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Members of an independent Buddhist group in a prayer meeting at Tamar Park in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. They are reciting sutra 1.03 million times to represent the number of protesters who came out on the streets on June 12, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam announced on Saturday (June 15) the government will suspend the highly divisive extradition law, and try to have better communication with the people, following massive protests this week that ended in violence and injuries.

Hours after Mrs Lam's move, protest leaders said they will press ahead with a planned rally on Sunday, adding that only a full withdrawal of the divisive law would satisfy them.

"We need to tell the government that the Hong Kong people will persist and will not discontinue our protest towards the government unless we see the withdrawal of the Bill," convener of the Civil Human Rights Front Jimmy Sham told reporters.

He had said on Saturday morning at a press conference that Hong Kong people will fight on until the government withdraws the Bill, and also retracts the labelling of the protest this week as a "riot".

Mrs Lam told reporters at a 3pm press conference on Saturday: "I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work and listen to different views of society."

"The Secretary for Security will send a letter to the Legislative Council President to withdraw the notice of resumption of a second reading debate on the Bill," she said, noting that her government came to the decision after studying the matter in the last two days.

"As a responsible government, we should defend law and order. But we also have to make a judgment call, and to protect Hong Kong's best interest," she said.

"The government will listen, with an open attitude, to opinions about the Bill," she stressed.

"We have no intention to set a deadline for this work, and promise to report to and consult members of the Legislative Council panel on security, before we decide on the next step forward," Mrs Lam said.

The extradition Bill was initially scheduled to be debated in the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday but was postponed twice after thousands of protesters heeded calls to surround the government headquarters in Admiralty.

"We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and making improvements, so that we can continue to connect with the people of Hong Kong," she told the reporters.

Beijing has shown 'understanding'

In response to a reporter's question on whether she has embarrassed Beijing on the issue, Mrs Lam said the central government has shown "understanding, trust, respect and support".

Beijing, she said, understands Hong Kong is different from the mainland, and that sometimes it is not easy to do "good things" in Hong Kong.

On who she is accountable to, Mrs Lam said she is responsible to Beijing and Hong Kong, and that her deeds are lawful.

"Even if your boss, who pays your salary, asks you to do something unlawful, you would not do it," she said.

On whether it was Beijing which told her to suspend the Bill, Mrs Lam replied: "This decision was made by me... I informed Beijing about it and they respected and supported it. It was not an order from Beijing."

Mrs Lam dodged the question on whether she will step down after this incident, saying "she feels saddened and regretful to have stirred up social conflict".

Mrs Lam made clear, however, that the Bill is not being withdrawn, in response to another question.

"We have two goals: the Taiwan murder case; and the loopholes," she says. "We might not be able to deal with the first one. But we still need to plug loopholes. So at this stage, I don't think the Bill can be withdrawn."

China's official Xinhua news agency reported on Saturday that Beijing has expressed its support, respect and understanding for Hong Kong's decision to suspend the Bill, but it condemned violent acts and supported the police.

Suspension aims to restore calm quickly

Mrs Lam said the decision to suspend the legislation was to restore calm in the society as soon as possible.

Protesters streamed in on Tuesday night for a sit-in protest and more people turned up on Wednesday morning for what began as a largely peaceful rally.

But this soon turned chaotic in the afternoon as some protesters charged at the police using the advance and retreat strategy reminiscent of the 2014 "Occupy" movement. The violent clashes resulted in 81 injured and 22 arrests.

The unrest has sparked domestic and international criticisms, adding to the mounting pressure on Mrs Lam to back down. The United States Consulate in Hong Kong on Saturday welcomed Hong Kong's decision.

Seeks mutual legal assistance with Taiwan

The proposed changes to the extradition Bill were mooted in February after a Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, confessed after returning to the territory to killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year. Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with Taiwan. The changes to the Bill would allow Hong Kong to send fugitives to other jurisdictions such as Taiwan and, more significantly, mainland China.

Hong Kong currently has 20 extradition agreements.

Mrs Lam told reporters on Saturday that since Taiwan authorities said they would not request the extradition of the murder suspect, the Bill is no longer urgent.

She confirmed the government cannot extradite Chan to Taiwan, but said the government will explore ways with Taiwan for mutual legal assistance on criminal matters in future.

Many in Hong Kong are opposed to handing people over to the mainland authorities due to the deep distrust in the Chinese judiciary's independence.

Pro-democracy lawmakers, lawyers and activists argued that the Bill is an erosion of the "one country, two systems" principle and said it creates doubts in Hong Kong's rule of law.

Under "one country, two systems", Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedoms for 50 years from 1997, when Britain handed the territory back to the Chinese.

Critics also argued that people would not receive fair trials and that human rights protection was inadequate.

After lobbying by heavyweights in business and political sectors, the original proposed changes were watered down twice. For example, the original 46 offences to be included in the extradition Bill were cut to 37.

In late March, the government pulled back on proposed amendments by dropping nine white-collar offences, such as those related to stock trading, intellectual property rights, bankruptcy, access to a computer with dishonest intent and tax evasion. But the government was firm on the inclusion of corruption and bribery.

It also raised the threshold for offences to be covered by the law, from the initial one-year jail term, to three years and later, to the current seven years. This means the law will cover offences that warrant penalties of more than seven years.

Secretary for Security John Lee had stated in a June 10 policy statement on the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance that the government had, over the past four months, met numerous bodies and individuals to collect opinions. Following this, the government narrowed the list of offences to those that are "most serious" and added more restrictions to safeguard the rights of the fugitive.

"The Hong Kong government will only process special surrender requests made by central authorities or their equivalent. Take the Mainland as an example, the Hong Kong government will not process any special surrender requests other than those made by the Supreme People's Procuratorate," said Mr Lee.

But opposition to the government's plan grew as more people feared that the amended Bill could be used for political persecution, which Mrs Lam's administration has dismissed.

Length of time of suspension crucial

When asked earlier on Saturday about the expected delay, Associate Professor Sing Ming of the University of Science and Technology had said the crux lies in how long it will be.

"So if she just postpones... the explosive (Bill), the delay will be for a few months, that is, it will only be discussed again in the new legislative session which opens in early October, and with a new round of consultations, then the 'bomb' will be defused for the next few months."

But Prof Sing noted that there is "widespread and obvious demand" from many in Hong Kong's civic society for accountability for police brutality during the protests and for Mrs Lam to be held accountable for her mishandling of the entire saga.

The political pressure will build up and make it difficult for Mrs Lam and her senior government officials to carry out their duties in future, he said.

Mrs Lam, at the press conference, ruled out the possibility of the Bill being reintroduced at the Legco this year.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.