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Hong Kong leader calls for dialogue as extradition bill withdrawal slammed as 'too little, too late'

Carrie Lam announced yesterday that she is scrapping the controversial extradition bill.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam
Image: Vincent Yu via PA Images

HONG KONG’S LEADER has urged pro-democracy protesters to end their demonstrations after her surprise decision to bow to one of their key demands was condemned as ‘too little, too late’.

Carrie Lam, the city’s pro-Beijing chief executive, surprised many yesterday when after three months of rallies she suddenly announced she was scrapping a hugely unpopular extradition law.

Millions of people have taken to Hong Kong’s streets since June in the biggest challenge to China’s rule of semi-autonomous Hong Kong since its handover from the British in 1997.

The protests were sparked by a proposed bill allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland but as Beijing and Lam refused to budge the movement morphed into a broader campaign calling for democratic reforms and police accountability.

Yesterday evening, Lam released a video message saying she was scrapping the bill entirely, a key demand of protesters.

At a press conference today, Lam continued her newfound conciliatory tone, saying her decision to fully withdraw the bill was an attempt “to help prevent violence and stop chaos as soon as possible, resume the social order and help our economy and people’s livelihood to move forward”.

“It is obvious to many of us that the discontentment in society extends far beyond the bill,” she added, saying she recognised that anger over inequality and the government had spiralled and needed to be solved.

She renewed her appeal for protesters to enter into a dialogue with her administration and called on moderate protesters to abandon their more militant allies who have frequently clashed with riot police over the last 14 weeks.

But there is little sign her belated concession will end protests of heal divisions in the international financial hub.

Airport protest plans

Hong Kong’s protests are leaderless and organised through social media, encompassing a vast swathe of the city, from moderates to more radical groups. 

Since Lam’s announcement yesterday evening there has been uniform condemnation across the protest spectrum with activists vowing to keep up their campaign.

At a “citizens press conference” yesterday evening – a useful gauge of the youth-led wing on the frontlines at rallies – an unidentified woman wearing a mask and helmet rejected the concession. 

“If Carrie Lam had withdrawn the bill two months ago, that may have been a quick fix,” she said. “But applying a band-aid months later on to rotting flesh will simply not cut it.”

“Too little, too late,” prominent activist Joshua Wong said on Twitter.

Online forums used by protesters have filled with calls for new rallies – including plans on Saturday to disrupt transport links to the city’s airport, a major regional aviation hub. 

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More moderate pan-democrat lawmakers have also rejected the concession and even some pro-establishment figures within Lam’s camp have said the bill withdrawal will not do enough to curb public anger.

Beyond calls to scrap the extradition bill, protesters had four core demands

  • an inquiry into police conduct
  • an amnesty for anyone arrested
  • a retraction of the label “rioters” to describe protesters
  • universal suffrage – the last a major red line for Beijing

So far Lam has consistently rejected those four demands, even though many say backing an independent inquiry could peel some moderate protesters away from the movement.  

The timing of Lam’s bill withdrawal was a surprise but it came after leaked audio recordings emerged of her suggesting her options were limited because Beijing viewed the protests as a direct threat to China’s sovereignty and national security.

China has increasingly portrayed the protests as a foreign-backed “colour revolution” and described radical demonstrators as “terrorists” and “separatists”. 

Speaking today, Lam insisted her decision to withdraw the bill was hers alone and that she received no direction from the mainland – although she said Beijing supported the move. 

“They respect my decision and they support it at every stage,” she said.

- © AFP 2019

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