Hong Kong leader offers 'sincere' apology for protests but stops short of cancelling China extradition bill

Adam Withnall

Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam has apologised for trying to force through a bill changing the city’s extradition laws and suggested it will not be revived unless the move gains popular backing.

Giving her first news conference since the crisis deepened dramatically with last Wednesday’s violent clashes between protesters and police, Ms Lam said she had been through a period of “self-reflection” about her own leadership and offered a “sincere and solemn” apology to her people.

But the Beijing-backed chief executive also continued to shrug off calls for her resignation, a key demand from Sunday’s two-million-strong demonstration, saying she wanted to see out the remaining three years of her term in order to win back the public’s trust.

And she also refused to meet protest leaders’ demands for her to apologise for either police brutality or the official designation of Wednesday’s protest as a riot.

The law in question would have loosened Hong Kong’s strict extradition policy, allowing suspects to be sent on a case-by-case basis to many more countries and territories.

This was to include mainland China, and the central government in Beijing had backed the law from the start. Critics feared the new law would be used to abduct dissidents for show trials on the mainland.

Ms Lam had already “suspended” the bill and apologised on Sunday for her handling of the political crisis, which has seen millions take to the streets and running battles between demonstrators and police armed with rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon.

But on Tuesday she suggested for the first time that the bill was effectively dead. When asked by a journalist if she could be trusted - given the bill was not being formally retracted - she insisted that it would expire in 2020 at the end of the current legislative term.

She said that “in recognition of the anxiety and fears caused by the bill in the last few months, if we don't have confidence from the people we will not proceed with the legislative exercise again”.

"I will not proceed with this legislative exercise if [their] fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed," she said.

It may not prove enough to placate protest leaders. Organisers of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the groups responsible for the previous two Sundays’ marches, said they were unhappy that Ms Lam had failed to meet any of their five demands, which also included the release of dozens of detained protesters.

Nonetheless, the shelving of the bill is a landmark moment for Hong Kong’s democratic protest movement, low on confidence until recently after the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement to force any meaningful change.

While Beijing continued on Tuesday to dismiss the protests as “foreign interference” in China’s affairs, and to censor any mention of the mass demonstrations in Chinese media, the protests will be seen as a victory against the perceived encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.