Hong Kong leader halts extradition bill; fresh protests on cards

Members of Civil Human Rights Front hold a news conference in response to the announcement by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam regarding the proposed extradition bill, outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Saturday. — Reuters

HONG KONG — 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 organizers 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.

'Pull out the knife'

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 apologize 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."

Jason Ng, from the Progressive Lawyers Group, said protesters were incensed by Lam's refusal "to take responsibility for the excessive police force unleashed on protesters and for tearing society asunder."

"This is unlikely to mollify civil society and we are expecting another big turnout at the march tomorrow," he told AFP.

Opposition to the Beijing-backed bill united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong from influential legal and business bodies, to religious leaders, western nations and the huge crowds hitting the streets.

Critics feared the law would tangle people up in China's notoriously opaque and politicized courts as well as hammer the city's reputation as a safe business hub.

But the furor was also the latest expression of public anger over fears that an increasingly assertive Beijing is stamping down on the city's freedoms and unique culture.

Under a 1997 deal signed with Britain, China allowed Hong Kong to keep key liberties denied to people on the mainland, like freedom of speech and independent courts, for 50 years.

Yet critics accuse Beijing of reneging on the deal with the complicity of the city's unelected leaders. — AFP