HONG KONG - Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday (Sept 4) formally withdrew a contentious extradition Bill following months of protests.
"The government will formally withdraw the Bill in order to fully allay public concerns," she said in a pre-recorded address in Cantonese and English that was carried by all major broadcasters in Hong Kong.
Mrs Lam said a motion to withdraw the Bill will be tabled when the Legislative Council reconvenes.
Although Mrs Lam had previously suspended the Bill – saying it was “dead” – her move did little to appease demonstrators, who continued protesting and expanded their demands to include calls for greater democratic freedom. Without the Bill’s formal withdrawal, it could be reintroduced in a matter of days.
Mrs Lam's announcement essentially responds to one of five demands protesters have asked for. The others are: the retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies; the release of all arrested demonstrators; an independent inquiry into the police; and the right for Hong Kongers to democratically choose their own leaders.
While she ruled out setting up an independent commission to look into the events that have led to recent mass protests, she said that the Independent Police Complaints Commission will be reinforced by former director of education Helen Yu and senior lawyer Paul Lam.
The government will also meet various stakeholders and members of the public in a bid to address the various social issues, she said.
"After more than two months of social unrest, it's obvious to many that the discontentment extends far beyond the (extradition) Bill," Mrs Lam added.
The announcement follows a meeting with pro-establishment political figures, the South China Morning Post newspaper and other media reported, citing people they did not identify. The gathering included local legislators and the city's representatives to national legislative bodies.
It came after a weekend of demonstrations that saw some of the fiercest clashes between protesters and riot police. Activists have lobbed petrol bombs and set bonfires in the streets, while police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, making more than 1,180 arrests since early June.
Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index surged nearly 3.9 per cent, scoring its biggest one-day gain since November 2018, and buoying equities across Asia. Hong Kong's property index also jumped.
The turmoil that followed Mrs Lam's attempt to introduce the ill-fated Bill - including mass marches that drew more than one million people and protests that shut the city's busy airport - has turned into the biggest crisis for Beijing's rule over the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
'TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE'?
It was not immediately clear if killing the Bill would help end the protests.
The immediate reaction appeared skeptical and the real test will be how many people take to the streets.
Two masked protesters held a 40-minute press conference outside the Legislative complex on Wednesday night, stressing "five demands, not one less".
Claiming to represent protesters, the two of them are part of a group of some 60 protesters. One of them, identifying himself as Law, told reporters: "That Carrie Lam made the concession today shows that the strategy of cooperation between radicals and moderates, seeking international attention while piling pressure locally on the government, has worked."
Law also said that he expects a planned rally at the airport this Saturday (Sept 7) to proceed.
He added that he is not concerned about the strength of the protests waning with the start of the school term, as the people of Hong Kong are a determined lot.
Some lawmakers said the withdrawal should have come earlier, Reuters reported.
“The damage has been done. The scars and wounds are still bleeding,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo. “She thinks she can use a garden hose to put out a hill fire. That’s not going to be acceptable.”
“This won’t appease the protesters,” said Boris Chen, 37, who works in financial services. “In any kind of time, people will find something they can get angry about.”
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Cheung Kwok Kwan said Lam’s announcement was not a compromise to appease those promoting violence, but a bid to win over moderates in the protest camp.
“It was likely speaking to the so-called peaceful, rational, non-violent people who were unsatisfied with the government’s response before,” he said.
One woman, Pearl, 69, said the protests were no longer about the Bill.
“Some of those guys may change their minds, maybe, but just a minority,” she said of the protesters. “Some of them just want to create trouble and they will continue to do so.”
"Too little, too late,” said Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests which were the precursor to the current unrest, on his Facebook page.
Leung Yiu-ting, president of the Hong Kong Education University student union, said the timing was wrong.
“Until the five demands are met, I don’t think the protests and the social movement will stop,” Reuters cited him as saying.
TENSE MOOD OUTSIDE MONGKOK POLICE STATION, PO LAM MTR STATION
A few hundred people continued to protest on Wednesday night.
Riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray – both anti-riot weapons – to clear demonstrators from outside the Mongkok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one man taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.
Another group of some 100 protesters gathered at Po Lam MTR station, demanding to know why the closure on Aug 31 of the Tseung Kwan O line - one of several lines suspended after the rail operator condemned “malicious attacks” on its premises.
The Po Lam station on Wednesday night broadcast an announcement telling the protesters that an injunction is in place.