HONG KONG - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam applied the brakes Saturday on an unpopular piece of legislation that would allow extradition to mainland China after a week of protests roiled the autonomous Chinese territory.
At a hastily scheduled press conference announced Saturday, Lam told a packed room of reporters the government had “halted” its work on the bill so it could gather more feedback.
“We have no intention to set a deadline for this work and promise to report to and consult members of the Legislative Council Panel on Security before we decide on the next step forward,” Lam said.
Lam’s announcement comes a day after she reportedly met with high-ranking Chinese officials in Shenzhen, according to the Sing Tao Daily newspaper.
She said she came to her decision after massive protests last Sunday and Wednesday, but continued to hold to previous talking points that the public simply did not understand how the bill would work.
“I have to admit that our explanation and communication work has not been sufficient or effective,” she said. “Although many people agreed with our two original purposes, there are still supporting views and opposing ones on the bill, and their stances are very often polarized.”
Under the most recent version of the bill, Hong Kong would, on a case-by-case basis, be able to extradite people to places where it does not have a long-term extradition agreement, although final approval would rest with the chief executive.
The bill was motivated by a recent murder case in Taiwan, where a Hong Kong man murdered his girlfriend while on vacation before returning home. Lam said she was deeply moved by the plight of the victim’s family, as Taiwan and Hong Kong do not share an extradition agreement, so the suspect could only be prosecuted at home for lesser crimes.
“As a responsible government, I feel obliged to find a way to deal with the Taiwan murder case so that justice can be done for the deceased, her parents and society,” Lam said.
While the government has said there are safeguards in the bill, many members of the public are highly suspicious of China’s legal system and its history of political prosecutions.
On Saturday, a small group of protesters continued their vigil outside government headquarters, where many were making signs to be taped to a pedestrian walkway, while elsewhere, religious groups sang hymns.
Protester Queenie Tse said she felt Lam did not go far enough with simply suspending work on the bill and wanted to see it revoked. “I think she ignores all our opinions,” Tse aid. “She still insists …it is a must to have this bill, but we are quite against this bill.
“I think the suspension is not enough ...I think it just [delays] this law, it does not fulfill our wish,” another protester Ky Pang said. “The most important thing ...is we do not trust the law in China. We are very afraid they will send us back to China and we will have an unfair trial.”
Their concerns also are shared by Hong Kong’s top legal societies, international business groups, and Western governments, including the United States. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has previously said the extradition bill could compromise its existing trade agreement with Hong Kong due to security concerns.
Despite Lam’s promise to suspend the bill, organizers of recent protests have vowed to carry on with a planned march on Sunday. Civil Human Rights Front said it did not trust Lam’s promises.
“Hong Kong people have been lied to many, many times,” said vice-convener Bonnie Leung on Saturday, drawing comparisons to previous instances where the government pledged to postpone an unpopular initiative only to resume later.
“Development projects were postponed but after social pressure died down they simply continued with those development projects,” she said. “The Hong Kong government simply cannot be trusted. The Hong Kong people know we have to take to the streets we have to continue our protest.”
Leung said the next protest will take place on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. local time — with all protesters wearing black shirts in solidarity.