Hong Kong Suspends China Extradition Plan in Stunning Reversal
(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s leader suspended efforts to pass a bill allowing extraditions to China, in a dramatic reversal that she said was necessary to restore order in the Asian financial hub and avoid further violence and mass protests.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, announced the legislative “pause” at a news conference Saturday, even as activists asked hundreds of thousands of residents who marched in protest last weekend to return to the streets and demand her resignation. Lam acknowledged that debate had shattered a period of relative calm in the former British colony, including clashes between demonstrators and police Wednesday that left more than 80 people hurt.
“Polarizing views in relation to this bill in society have given rise to violence, very serious confrontations,” Lam told reporters in a briefing that lasted 75 minutes. “That’s why I have come to the view that I have to do something decisively to address the issue of how could I restore as fast as possible the calm in society, and how could I avoid any more law enforcement officers and ordinary citizens being injured.”
Lam stopped short of withdrawing the proposal, which would let Hong Kong reach one-time agreements with mainland China and other jurisdictions, arguing that would contradict her belief that reform was necessary. She said, however, it was unlikely the government would seek its passage before the end of the year.
Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the Beijing-based agency that oversees the city, expressed “support, respect and understanding,” the official Xinhua News Agency said Saturday, citing an unnamed spokesman. The statement echoed Lam’s own remarks during her news conference, in which she repeatedly said the decision to suspend consideration was her own.
Lam’s decision “will certainly ease tensions of the general public a lot,” Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garments industries as a pro-establishment member of Hong Kong’s legislature, said in a phone interview. “There’s no time limit,” he said. “She’ll go back through the traditional channels for consultation.”
Chung said the Legislative Council might eventually ask Lam to form a committee to bring the law back for another reading.
The move failed to satisfy organizers of a planned 3 p.m. protest Sunday, who urge the bill’s withdrawal, Lam’s resignation and the release of demonstrators arrested this week. “We are disappointed and angry after this press conference,” Jimmy Sham, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, said at a news briefing Saturday.
It was stunning shift for Lam, who decided to press ahead with the proposal despite escalating protests including a June 9 march that drew hundreds of thousands of opponents into the streets. Her decision to move forward with debate led thousands more demonstrators to surround the legislative complex on June 12, resulting in scuffles when protesters tried to force their way into the building and police unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets.
Opponents fear the legislation would blow up the legal wall separating the city’s justice system from the mainland. Business groups argued the city would lose its appeal as a financial center while critics of the ruling Communist Party worried they would be exposed to prosecution in Chinese courts.
While Beijing expressed repeated support for the proposal, several Western governments raised concern that it undermines the “one country, two systems” framework that guaranteed free speech, capitalist markets and independent courts in Hong Kong after its 1997 return. U.S. lawmakers had threatened to reconsider the city’s special status that supported $38 billion in trade last year.
A timeline of Hong Kong’s standoff over extradition
The unrest in China’s most international city comes at a bad time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who needs to convey domestic strength ahead a pivotal potential summit with Donald Trump on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meetings this month in Japan.
“It was the combination of popular protests and the concerns raised within the establishment camp, which have led the government to suspend their proposals,” said Tim Summers, a Hong Kong-based senior consulting fellow with Chatham House. “To do otherwise would have risked further escalation, so I think both the business community and the pro-establishment, pro-Beijing camp will be relieved at today’s announcement.”
The legislation is part of a series of measures that pro-democracy advocates say has eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy. Lam, who was selected by a 1,200-member committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, has struggled to convince critics that the bill was her own initiative and not ordered up by Chinese authorities.
Lam said she needed the legislation to close a gap that prevented the city from extraditing a local man to Taiwan to face murder charges and wanted to pass the bill before the current legislative session ends next month. During her news conference, she blamed a statement Thursday by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- a frequent Beijing critic -- that Taipei wouldn’t cooperate with the extradition bill for removing the urgency to pass it.
Lam, who took office two years ago promising to heal divisions exposed by the mass Occupy protests in 2014 and the emergence of a small but assertive independence, expressed remorse that the proposal had become so controversial. She said the government should focus on improving people’s livelihoods while attempting to build support for the extradition bill.
“People in Hong Kong want a relatively calm and peaceful environment,” Lam said. “So this is a time -- after what you describe as this tension, conflicts, and so on -- this is a time for a responsible government, having looked at the situation and the circumstances, to restore as quickly as possible that calmness in society.”
--With assistance from April Ma, Matthew Campbell, David Tweed, Niu Shuping and Blake Schmidt.
To contact the reporters on this story: Shawna Kwan in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org;Fion Li in Hong Kong at email@example.com
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