HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s government has suspended, but will not withdraw, a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, the territory’s chief executive said Saturday, an apparent compromise after days of massive protests that saw violence between police and young demonstrators in the global financial hub.
But protest organizers insisted the government’s decision is not enough and said they will go ahead with another planned march Sunday.
The measure will be halted for the moment to restore calm and order to the city, according to chief executive Carrie Lam, though she said she is not trying to “pacify” protesters.
She continued to stand by the bill — which she said was introduced by her government independently, rather than on the direction of Beijing — insisting it had “laudable” objectives.
“The purpose is very simple: People in Hong Kong want a relatively calm and peaceful environment,” she said, adding that she has “no intention” to completely shelve the legislation.
Lam has delayed plans that would allow the territory to extradite fugitives to countries that do not have a formal extradition treaty with Hong Kong — crucially, mainland China. The legislature, which is controlled by a pro-Beijing block, had hoped to pass the bill by July.
Suspending the bill without withdrawing it entirely means “the government can readily put it back into legislative process, into second reading, immediately” and push it through at any time, said Mathew Wong, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.
There is no clear timeline on when the legislation will be picked up again.
“The original urgency to pass the bill in this legislative session here is perhaps no longer there,” Lam said.
The reversal reflects Lam’s increasing isolation in her city, which many fear is descending further into the grip of mainland Chinese rule. Critics worry that the extradition measure would remove a crucial firewall between Hong Kong and mainland China, effectively allowing mainland law to seep into the territory’s independent and respected judicial system.
“Her chance of standing for another term is very slim if not over,” Wong said. “It looks really bad for her.”
Lam’s decision to put off the bill for now may be too little and too late for demonstrators who have turned out in record numbers all week to oppose what they call the “evil law.”
A small group of protesters continued to stand at a footbridge leading to government offices where Lam spoke Saturday, as they have done for most of the week, demanding a complete withdrawal of the bill.
The footbridge was engulfed with hundreds of posters and messages, obscuring the walls and pillars. Among them: “Carrie Lam, stop lying to Hong Kong people,” “We keep fighting!” and “Stop shooting students!”
The Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized last week’s demonstration that saw more than 1 million show up in a record turnout for Hong Kong, said it will continue with another march planned for Sunday, citing Lam’s refusal to withdraw the bill or apologize for force used against demonstrators.
Bonnie Leung, one of the group’s leaders, urged people to attend the march to show the government that “Hong Kong people will persist.”
Lam has insisted that the bill was needed to close a “loophole” in Hong Kong’s legal system, prompted by the murder of a young woman in Taiwan by her boyfriend, a Hong Kong national. The man is jailed in Hong Kong and cannot be extradited to Taiwan. She cited that case again Saturday in refusing to permanently withdraw the bill.
The extradition bill “has very well intended objectives” related to the Taiwan matter and broader “deficiencies in our current regime to deal with mutual legal assistance on criminal matters,” Lam said Saturday. “Withdrawing the bill seems to suggest even those two objectives were erroneous in the first place, and I cannot accept that.”
Taiwan, however, has said it would not participate in any extradition deal that implies Taiwan is part of China and had not pushed for extradition over the murder case.
The Hong Kong government had continued to defend the legislation earlier in the week, even after the protests.
But officials started to back away from that position after demonstrators on Wednesday surrounded the buildings that host Hong Kong’s legislature in an attempt to block them from entering and to postpone a reading of the bill. Tens of thousands of people filled the streets, setting up an encampment reminiscent of 2014 protests that lasted 79 days, similarly in opposition to Beijing’s growing political control.
Wednesday’s events came to a head when police took action against protesters by firing 150 canisters of tear gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles. The city’s hospital authority said 81 people were injured, including a 15-year-old.
On Friday, pro-Beijing lawmakers began speaking out against Lam’s plan to rush the bill through despite opposition. The pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Tao Daily reported Lam on Friday had a meeting with senior Beijing officials in Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, followed by a meeting with her city’s top officials late that night to discuss the bill.
Lam declined to confirm the details of the meeting but said the Chinese central government had been informed of her decision to suspend the legislation.
“Since all along, they have taken such an understanding, supportive view to this local exercise, which is entirely within Hong Kong’s autonomy to do,” she said
“They understand, they have confidence in my judgment and they support me,” she said of the Beijing authorities.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is not directly elected by the people, but selected from a pool of candidates handpicked by Beijing and then voted on by a 1,200-person committee.
The fracas has come at a sensitive time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, forcing him to juggle trouble at home while fighting a trade war with the United States.
President Trump has sharply escalated tension with Beijing in recent weeks by hiking import tariffs on many Chinese goods and banning U.S. technology sales to a major Chinese company, Huawei.
Trump and Xi are preparing to attend the G-20 summit in Japan later this month, with Trump calling for a one-on-one meeting to resolve trade differences. The Chinese haven’t publicly committed to a meeting.
The U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong issued a statement saying the suspension of the extradition bill was “welcome.” Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, applauded Hong Kong officials for “heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights.”
Provoking a violent confrontation on the streets of Hong Kong “would be a disastrous outcome for Hong Kong’s image as an international city but also for the image of China when China is facing a hostile international environment,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Lam “has lost the trust of the Hong Kong people and she may have lost the trust of the Beijing authorities,” Choy said.
Jeanne Whalen and Yuan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.