Hong Kong’s top official caved in to pressure on Saturday, announcing that a contentious proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China has been indefinitely put on hold.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there was no timeline for reviving the bill, but that its passage was unlikely anytime soon.
Citing what she called “polarized opinions” and the need to prevent any more injuries such as those seen in recent clashes during large-scale demonstrations, Lam said that more time was necessary before proceeding.
The turnaround came after mass protests shook the Asian financial hub over the past week. Just days earlier, Lam said that the bill must be passed and on Wednesday condemned the demonstrations as a “blatant, organized riot.”
But citing widespread “concerns and doubt” among the public, and fears over a “further blow to society,” she called for a time-out.
“As a responsible government we have to maintain law and order on the one hand, and evaluate the situation for the greatest interest of Hong Kong, including restoring calmness in society as soon as possible and avoiding any more injuries to law enforcement officers and citizens,” she said.
Lam, who has rejected calls for her resignation, reiterated that she planned to continue in Hong Kong’s top post. She begins the third year of a five-year term next month.
The proposed bill, calling for legal amendments to allow accused criminals to be extradited to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no such arrangement, including China, has led to widespread opposition in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of 7.4 million people.
Hong Kong citizens, who enjoy a legal system independent from the rest of China, fear the plan could threaten those judicial protections and their broader autonomy — legacies of the city’s time as a British colony.
The city was guaranteed a high degree of control over its own affairs for at least 50 years under a “one country, two systems” arrangement when Britain ceded sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997. But local unease over increasing mainland influence has steadily grown since.
Foreign business groups and governments, including the United States, had come out against the extradition plan, stressing concerns that any erosion to Hong Kong’s legal system could make it a less attractive place for banks and companies to operate.
“We welcome the chief executive’s decision to indefinitely suspend consideration of the amendments,” a spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong said in an emailed statement.
The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, a local business organization that backed the legislation, also supported the decision.
The move “will allow things to cool down and let everyone return to rational debate,” Aron Harilela, the chamber’s chairman, said in a statement. “We look forward to the government continuing to engage in constructive discussions with stakeholders and the public to address and eliminate doubts about the bill.”
Lam said that while suspending the legislation does not mean it is being withdrawn, there will be no immediate resumption of debate in the Legislative Council, which “will halt its work in relation to the bill until our work in communication, explanation and listening to opinions is completed.”
Hundreds of thousands of people had marched in protest on June 9, followed by demonstrations on Wednesday that descended into violence when riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and some protesters clashed with officers and threw objects.
Another mass demonstration had been planned for Sunday, but Lam said that had nothing to do with the government’s decision to suspend the legislation.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the pro-democracy political advocacy group that organized the June 9 protest as well as the one set for Sunday, said that Lam did not go far enough.
“Postponement is not withdrawal,” the group said on its Facebook page, calling for the scheduled rally to go ahead.
RTHK, Hong Kong’s public service broadcaster, reported that a campaigner died Saturday after falling from a ledge on top of a shopping mall where he displayed signs against the legislation after Lam’s announcement. RTHK said that he unfurled a banner that read: “Entirely withdraw China extradition bill. We were not rioting.”
Asked at the press conference about her own future as chief executive and whether anyone in her government will take responsibility over the crisis, Lam acknowledged that she and other officials had not done a “good enough” job of persuading citizens of the need for the bill. “But give us another chance,” she added.
She added that officials in Beijing were informed and support the need to take more time.
“I can tell you that the central people’s government adopts the same attitude,” she said. “They understand, they have confidence in my judgment.”
One particular case came to the fore during the debate about the extradition law. The Hong Kong government could not extradite a local man to Taiwan even though he had been accused of killing his girlfriend there while they were on a visit last year.
Lam and other officials have said the proposed legislation was necessary to close the legal “gap.” But it would also apply to China, where the legal system is criticized by international human rights groups and feared by many in Hong Kong.
The territory’s government insisted it would ensure strong safeguards, including preventing human rights abuses, and said no one would be extradited for political purposes.
But Taiwan has said that it would not accept extraditions under the proposed changes and Lam acknowledged that was also a key factor in the suspension.
“The original urgency to pass the bill in this legislative year is perhaps no longer there,” she said, given Taiwan’s opposition to it.
Many opponents believe that the idea to amend the law was pushed by China, but Lam categorically denied that at a Monday press conference.
While China was on record as agreeing with the need for the legislation, it firmly backed Lam’s decision to suspend it on Saturday.
The central government “expresses its support, respect and understanding … and will continue its staunch support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam,” Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
China has dismissed concerns it wants to water down Hong Kong’s autonomy and Geng reiterated that.
“The rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents have been fully guaranteed according to law,” he said.