Friday, July 19, 2019 | ePaper
Hong Kong leader halts extradition bill but opponents vow fresh rally
Hong Kong's embattled leader on Saturday suspended a hugely divisive bill that would allow extraditions to China in a major climbdown following unprecedented unrest, but protesters vowed to press ahead with a mass Sunday rally.
The international finance hub was rocked by the worst political violence since its 1997 handover to China on Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Those clashes came three days after chief executive Carrie Lam refused to be budged by a record-breaking rally in which organisers said more than a million people marched through the streets calling for the Beijing-backed bill to be scrapped. After days of mounting pressure-including from her own allies-Lam relented on Saturday, announcing that work on the bill would be halted. She set no deadline for its reintroduction but stopped short of saying it was permanently scrapped. The decision was a rare concession from the city's pro-Beijing leaders who have successfully faced down demands from pro-democracy demonstrators in recent years.
But opponents were unmoved and said they would go ahead with a march on Sunday afternoon, hoping another huge turnout will pile more pressure on the city's beleaguered leader. Protest leaders called for Lam to step down and said they would only be mollified by a permanent cancellation of the extradition law.
They also demanded police drop rioting charges against protesters and for authorities to apologise for using "excessive force", an accusation officers deny. Jimmy Sham, from the main protest group the Civil Human Rights Front, likened the extradition bill to a "knife" that had been plunged into the city.
"It's almost reached our heart. Now the government said they won't push it, but they also refuse to pull it out," he added. Lam-who is appointed by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists-said she had no plans to resign. She defended the need to overhaul the city's extradition laws and said she retained the support of China's central government. But she admitted her team had misjudged the public mood. "I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years," she said. The unprecedented chaos in Hong Kong came at a sensitive time for China, already on edge over the 30th anniversary of the deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown. "We support, respect and understand this decision," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement. Political analyst Dixon Sing said tensions would likely dissipate in the short term if Sunday's rally remains calm. "In the next few months there will be at least a truce," he told AFP. "But the anxiety that this draft bill will be passed in the future, that will remain for quite some time."