HONG KONG — Moving to restore calm, apparently with Beijing’s backing, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Saturday she was putting on hold an extradition bill that sparked the city’s biggest public protests in years.
Activists, unimpressed, demanded she withdraw the legislation and urged Hong Kong residents to turn out Sunday for another mass protest against the proposal, which would enable authorities to send some suspects to stand trial in courts in mainland China.
“Hong Kong people have been lied to so many times,” said Bonny Leung, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the groups that has helped drive the demonstrations.
Members of the group said Lam should resign and apologize for the police use of potentially lethal force during clashes Wednesday that turned violent.
In a news briefing earlier, Lam sidestepped questions over whether she should quit. She insisted she was not withdrawing the proposed amendment to the extradition law and defended the police.
But Lam said she was suspending the bill indefinitely. It was time, she said, “for responsible government to restore as quickly as possible this calmness in society.”
Many in the former British colony worry the proposed bill would further erode cherished legal protections and freedoms. Appearing cheerful but occasionally frustrated over repeated questions over whether she would resign, Lam said the government would study the matter further, for the “greatest interest of Hong Kong.”
“After repeated internal deliberations over the last two days, I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise,” Lam said.
“I want to stress that the government is adopting an open mind,” she said. “We have no intention to set a deadline for this work.”
Lam apologized for what she said were failures in her government’s work to convince and reassure the public, but said she has not withdrawn the bill.
“Give us another chance,” she said.
She said she would “adopt a sincere and humble attitude in accepting criticism” over the government’s handling of the issue.
A protest Wednesday turned violent with clashes with police, leaving about 80 people injured including 22 police officers.
The standoff 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 a public anxious to protect the liberties they enjoy as a former British colony.
Lam said the legislation is still needed to address various deficiencies in Hong Kong’s law.
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 the seeking the change was criticism of Hong Kong by the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force, she said.
“We will try it again if circumstances permit,” Lam said.
She parried the questions over whether she should step down, saying she had Beijing’s backing.
“I can tell you the central people’s government has confidence in my judgment and they support me,” she said. She did not confirm, when asked, if she had met with Vice Premier Han Zheng to discuss the situation but did say she had reported on the issue to Beijing.
Lam emphasized that a chief concern was to avoid further injuries both for the public and for police.
“It’s possible there might be even worse confrontations that might be replaced by very serious injuries to my police colleagues and the public,” she said. “I don’t want any of those injuries to happen.”
Lam defended the forceful moves by police during protests earlier in the week, saying some of those involved were “very violent.”
“Have you seen those bricks?” thrown by protesters, she asked.
Lam also cited the economy as a concern.
The extradition bill has drawn criticism from U.S. and British lawmakers and human rights groups, prompting Beijing to lash back with warnings against “interference” in its internal affairs.
Some critics warned Hong Kong might lose its special economic status, conferred by measures such as the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, if the legislation further undermined the territory’s legal autonomy.
To keep Hong Kong’s special status as a customs territory, Beijing needs to abide by its “one country, two systems” promises to respect the territory’s legal autonomy for 50 years as promised, analysts said.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among the moves in recent years that have undermined that status.