Tuesday 22 October 2019

Hong Kong about-face will not end protest

'Step down, or you will be brought down by the people' warn protesters. Report: Wendy Tang in Hong Kong

Clash: A protester bows to riot police after they fire tear gas towards protesters outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong last Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Clash: A protester bows to riot police after they fire tear gas towards protesters outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong last Wednesday. Photo: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets of Hong Kong in another mass rally today despite a pledge by Carrie Lam, the city's embattled chief executive, to suspend a controversial new extradition bill.

Lam tried to strike a conciliatory tone yesterday as she delayed the bill after a tumultuous week that saw the worst political violence since the UK handed the city over to China in 1997.

On the way out: Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
On the way out: Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam. Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Critics fear that the sweeping bill puts foreign and Chinese nationals - even those just transiting through Hong Kong airport - at risk of unfair treatment by China's mistrusted and opaque justice system, and damages the city's reputation as a safe global financial hub.

Last Wednesday, tens of thousands of demonstrators clashed with police who repelled them with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The escalation came three days after Lam doubled down on the law despite a record-breaking rally last Sunday that organisers say drew more than one million people onto the streets.

Friday's decision to suspend the introduction of the bill was one of the most significant political turnarounds under public pressure by the Hong Kong government since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and it threw into question Lam's ability to continue to lead the city.

It also potentially alleviated an unwanted headache for the leadership in Beijing, which is grappling with a slowing economy and an all-consuming trade war with the US. Hong Kong's pro-China newspaper Sing Tao reported yesterday that China's top official overseeing Hong Kong policy, Vice Premier Han Zheng, met Lam in Shenzhen in recent days.

Lam declined to confirm whether or not the meeting had happened, but took ownership for the decision to suspend the bill and said she had support from the central government.

Steve Tsang, a political scientist at SOAS in London, said Beijing had most likely ordered Lam to postpone the bill. "They would have indicated to Carrie... that this just has to end. She didn't understand what she was doing," he said.

"I think Carrie Lam's days are numbered... Beijing cannot afford to sack her right away, because that would be an indication of weakness."

However Lam's about-turn and pledge to listen to the public was immediately rejected by protest leaders, who demanded that she fully scrap the bill, resign and apologise for heavy-handed police tactics.

Demonstrators expressed a lack of trust in the chief executive, who they accuse of being in thrall to Beijing, with some angry that the concessions came only after protests had turned violent.

Jimmy Sham, from Hong Kong protest group the Civil Human Rights Front, compared her offer to a "knife" that had been plunged into the city.

"It's almost reached our heart. Now the government said they won't push it, but they also refuse to pull it out," he told reporters while announcing today's rally.

Jason Ng, from the Progressive Lawyers Group, said people in Hong Kong remained incensed by Lam's refusal "to take responsibility for the excessive police force unleashed on protesters and for tearing society asunder.

"Carrie Lam, listen to me, follow the step of Theresa May, be courageous, step down. Otherwise, you will be brought down by Hong Kong people."

Lam's position became more precarious after China began to distance itself from the bill. On Thursday China's ambassador to London became the first senior Chinese official to publicly dismiss suggestions that Beijing had pushed for the expansion of the extradition legislation. On Friday, Michael Tien became Hong Kong's first pro-Beijing legislator to call publicly for a delay.

China's government, which recently faced international criticism on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, said yesterday that it supported the decision to suspend the bill. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called the move an attempt to "listen more widely to the views of the community and restore calm... as soon as possible".

It's a big ask. Ray Lo (19), a student in Hong Kong studying business, told reporters that she and thousands more would return to the streets today.

She cast suspicion over Lam's motives for postponing the legislation, theorising that the Hong Kong leader was keen to nullify protests before a visit by Chinese officials for the anniversary of the British handover on July 1.

Meanwhile on Friday evening thousands of mothers - all dressed in black and holding carnations - staged a vigil in Chater Garden, one of Hong Kong's public parks, on behalf of their children.

The stand-off between police and protesters in the former British colony escalated into Hong Kong's most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city's civil liberties and courts.

Lam, chosen by Beijing to be the highest-level local official, was caught between her Communist Party bosses and the Hong Kong public anxious to protect the liberties they enjoy as a former British colony.

Taiwan's insistence that it would not allow a man suspected of killing a Hong Kong woman to be extradited helped in her decision to withdraw the proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Law. Lam said the case was one reason driving a rush to get it passed, but that "the original urgency is perhaps no longer there".

Another factor behind seeking the change was criticism of Hong Kong by the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force, she said.

Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill had spooked some of Hong Kong's tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.

And senior police officers have said Lam's refusal to heed public opinion was sowing resentment in the force, which was already battered by accusations of police brutality during the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella" civil disobedience movement.

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. Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note China's justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and say it is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.

China says it respects the rule of law. However, 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.


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