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Protesters cover their faces with posters of Chief Executive Carrie Lam during the march from Causeway Bay to the government headquarters in Admiralty. Photo: Winson Wong

Carrie Lam vows to press on with controversial extradition bill despite mass protest but tries to pacify dissenters

  • City’s chief executive speaks out day after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to streets
  • Lam thanks those who took part, saying scrutiny is important part of ‘governance of Hong Kong’
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed on Monday to press ahead with a controversial extradition bill a day after a historic protest, even as she sought to pacify the demonstrators.

The chief executive said she understood why they marched and pledged to allay fears over the legislation through four measures, including improving communication on the bill between her administration and the public, and reporting regularly to the legislature on extradition decisions.

Sticking to her guns a day after Hong Kong witnessed the biggest demonstration since the 1997 handover, Lam insisted the legislation was necessary to prevent the city from becoming a haven for fugitives.

She also argued further delays to the bill’s passage would only sow “more anxiety and divisiveness in society”.

(From left) Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, Carrie Lam and Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu at a press conference on Monday. Photo: Sam Tsang

During a 45-minute press conference, Lam waved aside calls for her to resign but appeared emotional at times.

Later in the day, Beijing again lent its support to her government to pass the unpopular bill, scheduled for another debate in the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

Organisers of Sunday’s protest said more than a million people took part to voice their anger over the new legislation that would allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which the city lacks an extradition agreement, including mainland China.

“China resolutely supports the SAR government’s amendment and is not worried about the impact on the business environment,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, noting the authorities’ estimated protest turnout figure was 240,000 – much lower than the number organisers touted.

The office of the foreign ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong went a step further, accusing the United States of interfering in the city’s affairs. It “deplored and firmly opposed” the US for meddling by voicing its concerns over the bill.

In an interview with the Post on Monday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung noted the “unusual number” of critical statements by various foreign governments over the bill.

“The whole thing is bound up in international politics, compounded by geopolitical factors, the China factor and the Taiwan factor, and also the trade dispute between China and the West,” he said.

Sunday’s protest lasted more than eight hours without incident, but a late-night eruption of violence as demonstrators tried to ring Legco marred the peaceful rally.

As it happened: How protest march against extradition bill turned ugly

Police on Monday said they caught 19 people for unlawful assembly and another 358 radical protesters mostly aged below 25 could face arrest for taking part in the clashes.

Authorities also seized dozens of weapons such as lighters, scissors and paper cutters used during the skirmishes that left eight officers injured.

Sunday’s protest was the biggest in Hong Kong since the handover in 1997. Photo: Sam Tsang

While on Monday Lam enjoyed a brief respite from Sunday’s showdown, tensions were expected to resurface in the coming days as demonstrators vowed to surround the Legco building during the debate.

More than 100 businesses have pledged to go on strike on Wednesday, so their staff can go to any protest being mounted, and groups of students have said they will also join such gatherings.

I deeply believe most of the people joined the march out of their love for Hong Kong
Carrie Lam, chief executive

During her briefing, Lam thanked Sunday’s protesters and stopped short of condemning the radicals, expressing only regret at the late-night violence.

“I deeply believe most of the people joined the march out of their love for Hong Kong and hope they and their next generation would live in society with justice, rule of law, civilisation, safety, love and good governance,” she said.

“I can say firmly it is the same wish shared by me, the government and those lawmakers and groups which back the law amendments.”

Lam said she understood marchers were concerned about the proposed legal changes, and vowed to assuage their worries by taking on board the suggestions by several pro-establishment parties on Sunday in the immediate aftermath of the march.

Demonstrators clash with riot police outside the Legislative Council in Admiralty. Photo: Sam Tsang

These included further explanations of the proposals, a pledge to provide regular reports to the legislature about its implementation, if the bill was passed, and to make the human rights safeguards legally binding by making a “solemn statement” when the bill was debated on Wednesday.

The chief executive also insisted the bill only provided supplementary arrangements to close a serious loophole in the city’s justice system.

“The long-term goal is still to enter into long-term agreements on the surrender of fugitive offenders with as many jurisdictions as possible,” she said, adding more resources would be allocated to the Department of Justice and Security Bureau to start negotiations with jurisdictions including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau.

Sea of white washes through city as masses heed call on fugitive bill

Lam – who had declared during her election campaign of 2017 that she would resign “if mainstream opinion makes me no longer able to continue the job” – was repeatedly grilled during the press conference over whether she would step down.

She refused to be drawn in, beyond saying it was important to have a stable governing team “at a time when our economy is going to undergo some very severe challenges because of external uncertainties”.

A peaceful rally descended into violence that left eight officers injured. Photo: Edmond So

The chief executive’s promises did little to appease the bill’s critics.

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu questioned Lam’s agenda to forge a long-term extradition deal with the mainland, where fair trials are not guaranteed.

“The chief executive must be daydreaming as if she does not understand why a million people took to the streets,” he said.

“When people stop her from moving the firewall of the two legal systems, she did not back down but took a step further by indicating her intention to sign a long-term agreement with the mainland.

Nearly 360 protesters face arrest over march clashes, police say

“Such intention is inconsistent with the general public’s demands.”

Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai said: “We call on all citizens to exhaust all means to paralyse the government’s operation.”

Sunday’s protest drew a wave of solidarity from around the world, with at least 29 rallies against the bill held in 12 countries, including the US.

On Sunday, Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of China’s governance and human rights record, voiced his support for Hong Kong on Twitter.

“We should all be inspired by & support the people of [Hong Kong] as they peacefully protest in favor of autonomy & against a Beijing backed proposed extradition bill that would allow individuals to be sent to [China] to stand trial,” he wrote.

Rubio was among the eight bipartisan US lawmakers who sent a joint letter to Lam last month, urging her to withdraw the amendments to the law, citing concerns that “the proposed changes could negatively impact the unique relationship between the United States and Hong Kong”.

Additional reporting by Gary Cheung and Nectar Gan

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lam vows to press on with bill but offers few changes