HONG KONG — After months of clashes and chaos, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced an end Wednesday to the extradition bill that touched off the territory’s worst political crisis since its handover to China. The reply from protesters and even pro-government officials was swift and sharp: Too little, too late.
The dueling messages — an olive branch from Lam and a rebuff from opponents — suggest little hope for a breakthrough to ease the increasingly violent confrontations playing out on Hong Kong’s streets.
That is because the protests have gone far beyond the now-dead bill to allow extradition to mainland China. The dissent has grown into a broad base that includes shopkeepers, civil servants, students and others fearing that Hong Kong’s freedoms and special status within China are in jeopardy.
And Lam’s move was widely seen as falling short on many fronts — including failing to address the deep concerns over the expanding use of force by riot police.
Meanwhile, representatives from Lam’s cabinet say their hands are tied in doing much more. That will probably extend the tumult ahead of Oct. 1 events to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Protesters have threatened huge demonstrations in Hong Kong to mark the day — which could be a major embarrassment to China’s state-run celebrations.
“We should all think deeply whether escalating violence and disturbances is the answer,” Lam said in her speech Wednesday before announcing four steps that she would take to kick-start a dialogue with the public, notably a full withdrawal of the extradition bill. That process will start once the legislature meets again in October, Lam added.
But some groups quickly turned their backs on the offer.
Several protest leaders — in masks and hard hats — held their own news conference and called Lam’s moves insufficient.
Since spring, the demonstrations have grown into a general revolt against China’s hand in Hong Kong affairs. Protesters fear that Beijing plans to further roll back Hong Kong’s political and social openness under the “one country, two systems” accord in which Britain handed back control in 1997.
But protesters also have set a specific five-point list that includes a long-held aspiration to allow Hong Kong voters a direct say in electing their leaders. Lam has addressed just one — and perhaps the easiest — of the five demands.
As her address played on social media, a flood of comments coming in said: “Five demands! Not one less!”
“Hong Kongers will not be satisfied by a partial victory, and our thirst for freedom and justice will not be quenched,” said one of the masked protesters at the news conference. “Five demands, not one less” is not a slogan, she added, but a “joint consensus.”
Lam stopped short of announcing a fully independent investigation into the upheavals, including the police’s response and use of force. Police have arrested almost 1,200 people on protest-related charges.
Protesters also want amnesty for those arrested. The Hong Kong police have been the only authority tasked with suppressing the protests and related violence, despite threats of military intervention from Beijing.
After meeting with her cabinet, pro-Beijing lawmakers and others in the government, Lam said in a televised address that the clashes have “shocked and saddened people.”
Her other steps included beefing up Hong Kong’s independent police watchdog, known as the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), and ordering it to look into the force’s handling of protests and organized-crime-linked attacks against protesters in July.
Lam said she would also reach out to the community to start a “direct dialogue” with people and task experts, including academics, to independently “examine and review society’s deep-seated problems and to advise the government on finding solutions.”
Protesters deeply distrust the IPCC, which is headed by the former chairman of the city’s Securities and Futures Commission, Anthony Francis Neoh, who was appointed to the top position by Lam in 2018.
Protesters believe that the body, which monitors and reviews complaints against members of the Hong Kong police, is stacked with Lam loyalists and cannot be impartial. The body is also unable to summon witnesses.
It was the possibility of being extradited to face the justice system in mainland China that sparked the massive demonstrations. Lam had previously announced that she would suspend work on the bill and later termed it “dead,” but protesters wanted it completely withdrawn, fearing she could restart it later in her term.
Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s Executive Council and a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said she believes Lam has responded to a “centerpiece” demand from protesters.
“There are no more concessions we can make,” she said in an interview. “I hope people can recognize that our government is working hard to meet the aspirations of the people.”
Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who also serves as a Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress in China, said resistance to concessions has come in part from Beijing, which is concerned “it will send a signal to everybody in Hong Kong that the baby who cries the most will get the milk.”
He added that while fully withdrawing the bill was the “right thing” to do, it was probably too late to have an impact.
“The focus since the beginning of July has completely shifted now to the confrontation between police and rioters and how the public perceives it,” he said. “The public is totally polarized, but it is no longer about the extradition bill.”
Tien added that if grievances between the police and the public are not addressed, “people are going to be carrying around this hatred for many years.”
Lam, those familiar with her thinking say, fears a negative response from the police force if she were to open such an investigation.
Political crises have erupted periodically in the semiautonomous territory, however, over fears that the Chinese government is seeking to exercise greater control, most recently in 2014 when Beijing rejected full universal suffrage for Hong Kong.
Protests have taken on an increasingly anti-Chinese flavor — the national emblem has been defaced, the Chinese flag flung into Victoria Harbor and other symbols of Beijing’s control targeted.
On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app used by protesters to help organize demonstrations, Lam’s decision was met with resistance and anger. Some forwarded a quote from “Winter on Fire,” a documentary film about Ukraine’s 2014 anti-government protests: “If we accept the government’s demands, those who have died will not forgive us.”
Hong Kong stocks surged on the reports that the bill would be formally withdrawn, closing up nearly 4 percent.
Some fear, however, that the crisis has fundamentally eroded business confidence in Hong Kong and revealed the extent of Beijing’s ability to pressure even multinational corporations in the city.
The most glaring example is the upheaval and panic at Cathay Pacific, whose chief executive was effectively pushed out over concerns from China that the airline had not done enough to keep its staff from supporting the protests. On Wednesday, the airline announced that its chairman, John Slosar, had resigned, too, and would retire after a Nov. 6 board meeting.
“I am sure that everyone at the Cathay Pacific Group would agree that recent weeks have brought some of the most extraordinary and challenging times we have ever experienced,” Slosar said in an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post. “I can well appreciate that such volatility can cause concern over what the future may hold.”
His retirement would mean that the airline’s top leaders have been replaced in the wake of pressure from Beijing.
One business executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the pressure on Cathay was a “real shot across the bow” that sent “shock waves” through the business community.
Jasper Tsang, a former senior official in the Hong Kong government who continues to be a confidant and adviser to Lam, said in an interview Tuesday that concessions aside, the crisis has already done serious damage to Hong Kong.
“It is not easy to make a full assessment yet,” he said. “And even after the violent protest stops, it will take some time, a lot of patience, a lot of hard work to pick up the pieces and put them back together if we can.”
“Humpty Dumpty has fallen,” he added. “We don’t know whether we can put the broken pieces back together.”
Anna Kam contributed to this report.