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Hong Kong leader fully withdraws extradition bill, but protesters say it’s not enough

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019.

SEONGJOON CHO/BLOOMBERG

By SHIBANI MAHTANI AND TIMOTHY MCLAUGHLIN | The Washington Post | Published: September 4, 2019

HONG KONG — After months of standing firm, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced Wednesday she formally will withdrawal a bill allowing extradition to mainland China — a move quickly rejected by protesters, moderates and even some pro-government officials as too little and too late amid the territory’s worst political crisis since its handover to China 22 years ago.

The end of the bill, which sparked months of sometimes-violent protest in the semi-autonomous city, means Lam has addressed one — and perhaps the easiest — of five demands put forward by protesters.

Lam now hopes to kick-start a dialogue after months of increasingly violent demonstrations.

Lam, however, stopped short of announcing a fully independent investigation into the upheaval including the police’s response and use of force, a key issue playing out night after night on city streets.

Many already are rejecting her concessions as insufficient, while representatives from her cabinet say their hands are tied in doing much more — opposing positions that likely will extend the tumult into Oct. 1, a sensitive anniversary for Beijing marking the 70th year of the Communist Party.

After meeting with her cabinet, pro-Beijing lawmakers and others in the government, Lam said in a televised address that incidents in recent months have “shocked and saddened people.”

“We should all think deeply whether escalating violence and disturbances is the answer,” she said in the speech, before announcing four steps that she would take to kick-start a dialogue with the public, notably a full withdrawal of the extradition bill. That process will start once the legislature meets again in October, Lam added.

Her other steps included beefing up Hong Kong’s independent police watchdog, known as the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), and ordering it to look into the force’s handling of protests and organized crime-linked attacks against protesters in July.

Lam said she also would reach out to the community to start a “direct dialogue” with people and would task experts, including academics, to independently “examine and review society’s deep-seated problems and to advise the government on finding solutions.”

Initial reactions by protesters suggest that these steps, too, will be insufficient to calm the unrest. As her address played on livestreams and on social media, a flood of comments coming in said, “Five demands! Not one less!”

Crucially, protesters deeply distrust the IPCC, which is headed by the former chairman of the city’s Securities and Futures Commission, Anthony Francis Neoh, who was appointed to the top position by Lam in 2018. Protesters believe that the body, which monitors and reviews complaints against members of the Hong Kong police, is stacked with Lam loyalists and cannot be impartial. The body also is unable to summon witnesses.

It was the possibility of being extradited to face the justice system in mainland China that sparked the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, which have continued to rack the city weekly since June. Lam previously had announced that she would suspend work on the bill and later termed it “dead,” but protesters wanted it completely withdrawn, fearing she could restart it later in her term.

Since June, however, the demonstrations — which at times have turned violent and have provoked an increasingly harsh police response — have moved beyond the legislation. Protesters have settled on five demands, among them universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leaders and an investigation into the crisis including the police response during the past three months.

Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council and a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said she believes Lam has responded to a “centerpiece” demand from protesters.

“There are no more concessions we can make,” she said in an interview. “I hope people can recognize that our government is working hard to meet the aspirations of the people.”

Until now, Lam had rejected all the protesters’ demands. Many believe that meeting two in particular — fully withdrawing the bill and having an independent inquiry into the crisis — would be the easiest way in the short term to address the anger on the streets.

“The focus since the beginning of July has completely shifted now to the confrontation between police and rioters, and how the public perceives it,” he said. “The public is totally polarized, but it is no longer about the extradition bill.”

Lam, those familiar with her thinking say, fears a negative response from the police force if she were to open such an investigation.

Hong Kong returned to Beijing’s control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that allowed the city to maintain its own internal governing rules.

Political crises have erupted periodically in the semiautonomous territory, however, over fears that the Chinese government is seeking to exercise greater control, most recently in 2014, when Beijing rejected full universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

Protests have taken on an increasingly anti-Chinese flavor — the national emblem has been defaced, the Chinese flag was flung into Victoria Harbor and other symbols of Beijing’s control have been targeted.

Chinese authorities have threatened the use of military force in Hong Kong and have hoped that protests peter out before Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Protesters have threatened huge demonstrations in Hong Kong to mark the day.

On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app used by protesters to help organize demonstrations, Lam’s decision was met with resistance and anger. Some forwarded a quote from “Winter on Fire,” a documentary film about Ukraine’s 2014 anti-government protests: “If we accept the government’s demands, those who have died will not forgive us.”

Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the centrist political group Third Side, who met with Lam last month during a listening session with moderate politicians, is among those who back the independent inquiry. Her concessions, he said, were insufficient and the government needs to offer “something more.”

Tien, the pro-Beijing lawmaker, added that if grievances between the police and the public are not addressed, “people are going to be carrying around this hatred for many years.”

Hong Kong stocks surged on the reports that the bill would be withdrawn formally, leaping more than 3% on Wednesday afternoon.

Some believe however that the crisis has eroded business confidence fundamentally in Hong Kong and revealed the extent of Beijing’s ability to pressure even multinational corporations in the city.

The most glaring example of this is the upheaval and panic at Cathay Pacific, whose chief executive effectively was pushed out over concerns from China that the airline had not done enough to keep its staff from supporting the protests. On Wednesday afternoon, the airline announced that its chairman, John Slosar, had resigned, too, and would retire after a Nov. 6 board meeting.

“I am sure that everyone at the Cathay Pacific Group would agree that recent weeks have brought some of the most extraordinary and challenging times we have ever experienced,” Slosar said in an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post. “I can well appreciate that such volatility can cause concern over what the future may hold.”

His retirement would mean that the airline’s top leaders have been replaced in the wake of pressure from Beijing.

One business executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the pressure on Cathay was a “real shot across the bow” that sent “shock waves” through the business community.

“There is a lingering question about what really happens in the long run. Will there be a solution to the issues Hong Kong is facing?” the executive added.

Jasper Tsang, a former senior official in the Hong Kong government who continues to be a confidant and adviser to Lam, said in an interview Tuesday that concessions aside, the crisis already has done serious damage to Hong Kong.

“It is not easy to make a full assessment yet,” he said. “And even after the violent protest stops, it will take some time, a lot of patience, a lot of hard work to pick up the pieces and put them back together if we can.”

“Humpty Dumpty has fallen. We don’t know whether we can put the broken pieces back together,” he added.

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