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Hong Kong’s leader apologizes again but won’t pull controversial extradition bill

After days of mass protests, critics see the apology as insufficient — and want the bill withdrawn entirely.

Hong Kongers Protest Over China Extradition Law
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam gives press conference about the controversial extradition bill on June 18, 2019.
Carl Court/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, apologized Tuesday for proposing a controversial extradition bill that sparked massive protests last week — but she stopped short of withdrawing the legislation altogether.

“I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility,” Lam said, according to the BBC. “This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society. For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”

Lam promised on Saturday to “indefinitely suspend” the extradition legislation, which would allow a person arrested in Hong Kong to face trial outside the semi-autonomous city-state, most notably in mainland China. The bill is contentious because many Hong Kong residents see this as another attempt by Beijing to tighten its control over Hong Kong, which has its own judicial and political system under the “one country, two systems” doctrine.

Lam’s decision to put the bill on pause didn’t satisfy many in Hong Kong who saw this as a standard delay tactic, and prompted another round of huge protests on Sunday. An estimated 2 million people — out of the city’s population of 7 million — swarmed the streets. It came a week after days of tension in the city-state, including demonstrations on Wednesday that turned violent and protests the previous Sunday that saw nearly one in seven Hong Kongers take to the streets.

On Tuesday, Lam said she would not proceed with the legislation “if these fears and anxieties could not be adequately addressed,” referring to the opposition to the bill. But critics and some protesters again saw this concession as hollow, as Lam’s refusal to formally scrap the bill leaves open the possibility that lawmakers could quickly take up the legislation before the end of the year.

“She is trying to delay and hope Hong Kong people forget,” Tim, a 26-year-old finance professional in Hong Kong who’s protested the bill, told Vox via WhatsApp.

Lam has also resisted calls to resign, saying she sought “another chance.”

Protesters are also pressuring officials to drop rioting charges against those arrested last Wednesday. Last week, demonstrations turned violent, as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. Police defended their response and had characterized the demonstrations as a “riot,” which carries legal significance, as rioters can face up to 10 years in prison.

Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said Monday that only five of the 32 people arrested would face charges, but neither he nor Lam has apologized for the police’s use of force.

All this has left Hong Kong in limbo. While the extradition bill is on hold right now, the threat hasn’t been removed. Beijing continues to back Lam. More protests and strikes are likely, protesters told me, but plans are still being formulated.

The extradition law at the center of Hong Kong’s protests, briefly explained

The protests in Hong Kong over the past 10 days have brought millions of people to the streets to push back against this extradition bill that critics see as a direct threat to the territory’s democracy and another example of Beijing’s encroachment.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a quasi-independent city-state. In 1997, Britain handed it back over to China on the condition that the territory be allowed to govern itself for the next 50 years under the principle of “one country, two systems.”

But that’s been increasingly under threat, as Beijing wants to bring Hong Kong closer into its orbit.

“In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy leaders, expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong,” Ben Bland, a Hong Kong expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia, told Vox’s Alex Ward last week.

Demonstrators see this extradition bill as another example of that. Hong Kong doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with mainland China, but this legislation would allow Hong Kong’s chief executive (the city-state’s governor, basically) to transfer arrestees on a case-by-case basis to face trial in China — and it would apply retroactively.

Critics fear this will let Beijing arbitrarily target anyone it deems a threat, and that there will be little check on the chief executive’s power, as she was handpicked by the government in Beijing.

Lam previously defended the extradition bill, saying it’s intended to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a safe haven for fugitives.

She has now backtracked, cowing to pressure and suspending the bill. But critics want her to withdraw the legislation completely, and remove the threat that lawmakers could quickly try to take it up again once the demonstrations and public opposition subside.

Which is why protesters see the fight against this bill as incomplete. Billy, a 29-year-old from Hong Kong who’s currently in the UK, told me the protests were not a victory. “Not much has been achieved apart from the delay in legislation of a law that is threatening the existence of Hong Kong.”

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