Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the extradition bill that drew millions to the streets in protest was “dead,” and admitted that the government’s work on the proposal had been a “total failure", but stopped short of saying it was withdrawn entirely.
Her remarks are unlikely to calm demonstrators who have called for the proposal to be scrapped completely over fears the government could table it again anytime, despite saying, “I reiterate here, there is no such plan – the bill is dead.”
Leading activist Joshua Wong, 22, called her remarks “another ridiculous lie,” because “the bill still exists in the legislative programme until July next year.”
Ms Lam’s “refusal to acknowledge the consequences of the fatal flaws of the extradition bill continues to inflame the situation in Hong Kong,” said Man-kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, a rights group, describing the proposal “a real threat to human rights.”
The bill was met with massive outcry, as it could have sent anyone passing through Hong Kong, including foreign nationals on a layover at the airport, to mainland China to face trial where the ruling Communist Party controls the courts. Lawyers and rights groups have documented evidence of forced confessions, torture and arbitrary detention in China’s murky legal and judicial systems – claims that Beijing denies.
Over the last month, the former British colony has been roiled by huge protests that at times ended with police deploying rubber bullets and tear gas. Last Monday, a fringe group of protesters seized the parliament building in a dramatic escalation of the anti-government movement.
Two weeks ago, Ms Lam gave similar remarks, saying work on the bill would be suspended and even offering an apology to the public.
But to many residents, it was too little, too late – despite massive popular opposition from the beginning when the proposal was floated, Ms Lam kept to a hard line, saying it would be pushed through before the city’s legislature recessed for the summer.
That pushed even more waves of people to flood the streets with a growing list of demands: for her resignation; protection for protesters already arrested; an independent investigation into violent police actions during the demonstrations, and a call for political reform to allow for universal suffrage.
But on Tuesday, Ms Lam said she would not step down from her post, and that she saw no need for an independent inquiry.
Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain in 1997 with the promise of a high degree of autonomy under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. But changes in recent years have concerned many that the city’s unique way of life is disappearing as Chinese leader Xi Jinping has consolidated his power while overseeing a massive crackdown on dissent.
Outcry over the extradition bill is the biggest challenge Beijing has faced to its rule in the territory, and a public affront to Mr Xi’s power.
Protesters have vowed to continue taking to the streets, with more demonstrations planned this week after hundreds clashed with police late Sunday following a peaceful march in the afternoon. Authorities arrested six in connection with the demonstrations that day. Activists have also accused police of using excessive force against journalists covering the protests.
Censors in China, which routinely restrict news and information, have restricted coverage of the Hong Kong protests. Instead, the official line – and what state media has carried – has largely focused on condemning protesters for resorting to violence.
Beijing has also accused the UK last week for a “colonial mindset” and interfering in Chinese domestic affairs after Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged China to uphold its end of the Joint Declaration.
China again on Monday blasted its critics over the protests when Hong Kong activist and pop star Denise Ho was interrupted twice by a Chinese diplomat in three minutes of remarks at United Nations.
Ms Ho said that the extradition bill would “remove the firewall protecting Hong Kong from interference of the Chinese government,” and accused Beijing of “preventing our democracy at all costs.” Chinese diplomat Dai Demao interrupted to call her comments “unfounded allegations,” and demanded she stop using such “abusive language.”