Wednesday 18 September 2019

Extradition bill withdrawn to 'allay concerns' in Hong Kong

Brolly good: Hong Kong students use umbrellas to practice self-defence techniques to prevent possible violence during protests. Photo: AP
Brolly good: Hong Kong students use umbrellas to practice self-defence techniques to prevent possible violence during protests. Photo: AP

James Pomfret and Clare Jim

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has withdrawn the extradition bill which triggered months of often violent protests so the Chinese-ruled city can move forward from a "highly vulnerable and dangerous" place.

Her televised announcement came after reports revealing Beijing had thwarted an earlier proposal from Ms Lam to withdraw the bill and that she had said privately she would resign if she could.

"Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law," Ms Lam said as she made the announcement.

The withdrawal, a key demand of protesters, came after unrest drove the former British colony to the edge of anarchy as the government repeatedly refused to back down, igniting pitched battles across the city of seven million, the arrests of more than 1,000 protesters and leaving a society deeply divided.

Many are furious about perceived police brutality and the number of arrests - 1,183 at the latest count - and want an independent inquiry.

"The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns," Ms Lam said. "I pledge that the government will seriously follow up the recommendations of the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Council) report.

"From this month, I and my principal officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue. We must find ways to address the discontent in society and look for solutions."

The protests began in March but snowballed in June and have since evolved into a push for greater democracy for the city, which returned to China in 1997.

The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

It was not immediately clear if killing the bill would help end unrest. The immediate reaction appeared sceptical and the real test will be how many people take to the streets.

Some lawmakers said the move should have come earlier. "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."

In a voice recording of a private meeting last week, Ms Lam said her room to find a political solution to the crisis was "very limited", as authorities in Beijing now viewed the situation as a matter of national security.

Beijing's apparent endorsement of the withdrawal of the bill comes after the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping's rule since he took power in 2012.

Others said the move was not enough. "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 Ms 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.

Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index jumped after the report of the bill's imminent withdrawal, trading up about 4pc. The property index also jumped.

Ms Lam had said before the bill was "dead", but did not withdraw it. The protesters' other demands are the retraction of the word "riot" to describe rallies; the release of arrested demonstrators; an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality; and the right for people to democratically choose their own leaders.

Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula which allows it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest and an independent legal system, hence the anger at the extradition bill and perceived creeping influence by Beijing.

China denies it is meddling in Hong Kong's affairs but warned again this week it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.

China has regularly denounced the protests and warned about the impact on Hong Kong's economy.

Cathay Pacific Airways has been one of the biggest corporate casualties. China's aviation regulator demanded it suspend staff from flying over its airspace if they were involved in, or supported, the demonstrations.

The airline has laid off at least 20, including pilots and cabin crew.

Irish Independent

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