Hong Kong‘s embattled leader has indefinitely delayed a controversial bill that would allow extraditions to China in a major climbdown after anger over the proposed law triggered the city’s biggest protests in decades.
But protest leaders swiftly rejected Saturday’s concession from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, calling on her to resign, permanently shelve the bill and apologise for police use of force against demonstrators.
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Activists also said they were still planning a mass protest for Sunday.
The extradition bill, which would have covered Hong Kong’s seven million residents as well as foreign and Chinese nationals there, was seen by many as a threat to the rule of law in the former British colony.
Around a million people marched through Hong Kong last Sunday to oppose the bill, according to organisers of the protest. Demonstrations continued through the week and were met with tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets from police, plunging the Asian finance hub into turmoil and piling heavy pressure on Lam.
“After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, 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,” Lam told a news conference.
“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind,” she said, insisting the bill was still needed.
She emphasised that a chief concern was to avoid further injuries both for the public and for police. About 80 people were hurt in the clashes earlier in the week, including more than 20 police.
Lam repeatedly sidestepped reporters’ questions over whether she would step down, and appealed to the public to “give us another chance”.
‘Too little, too late’
However, her political opponents said the measures were not enough.
“Democrats in Hong Kong simply cannot accept this suspension decision,” said legislator Claudia Mo. “Because the suspension is temporary. The pain is still there.”
The decision was “too little, too late,” Mo said.
Opponents of the bill fear it could make residents of the city vulnerable to politically-motivated charges in China’s court system and comes as part of a wider move by Beijing to scale back the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys under the so-called “one country, two systems” principle put in place as it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
Lam had said the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals using Hong Kong as a place to hide and that human rights would be protected by the city’s court which would decide on the extraditions on a case-by-case basis.
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Hong Kong, called Lam’s decision on Sunday a “short-term victory for these protesters”.
He added: “This reversal comes on the heels of a miscalculation by Carrie Lam. She didn’t expect to get this kind of backlash from Hong Kongers so she is having to back-pedal.”
Meanwhile, the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised last week’s rally, said protests will continue on Sunday, while a strike is planned for Monday.
“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,” Jimmy Sham, from the organisation, told reporters.
Emily Lau, human rights campaigner and former legislator, also called for continued protests.
“It’s a fundamental issue of two different systems. In Hong Kong we have the rule of law, independent judiciary, protection of human rights,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Over there in mainland China, it’s complete lawlessness. That’s why the people feel very unsafe. If you send somebody back there for trial, you cannot guarantee the person is going to get a fair trial. So it’s not a communication problem; what [Lam] said is nonsense,” Lau said.
Authorities in Hong Kong have been negotiating with the central government for more than 20 years about rendition agreements, she said. However, “so long as the two legal systems are so different, so long as you cannot guarantee that the person you’re sending back will get a fair trial, it’s very difficult to get a deal,” she said.
China supports Lam
China said it supported Lam’s decision.
Geng Shuang, spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, said the central government “fully affirmed” the work of Lam and would continue “to firmly support” her.
Beijing “strongly condemns” the violence during the protests and supports the Hong Kong police, he said.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary congratulated the Hong Kong government for “heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights”.
“Safeguarding the rights and freedoms in the Sino-British Joint Declaration is the best future for HK and Britain stands behind this legally-binding agreement,” Jeremy Hunt wrote on Twitter.
Under a 1997 deal signed with Britain, China allowed Hong Kong to keep key liberties denied to people on the mainland – like freedom of speech and independent courts – for 50 years.
Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.