Hong Kong extradition bill
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Carrie Lam announces the suspension of the extradition bill. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

When suspending Hong Kong’s extradition bill versus withdrawing it has a different meaning politically and legally but the same outcome: death of the legislation

  • Administration has made it clear that there is no timetable to relaunch the suspended bill, source stresses
  • Suspension effectively the best face-saving option Lam and her political bosses could stomach without being seen as being weak, Beijing watchers say
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor finally apologised on Sunday night for causing sadness and disappointment over the divisive extradition bill, but the question on many people’s minds was whether she would now withdraw it altogether.

On Sunday evening, a government source stressed to the Post that with the administration making it clear that there was no timetable to relaunch the suspended bill, the legislation would die a “natural death” when Legco’s current term ended in July next year. His comments came after massive protests were held across the city on Sunday.

While there was little chance of it being resurrected, resentment over the fugitive plans continued to fester, gauging from the crowds and the narrative seized by the opposition pan-democrat camp.

Beijing watchers said suspension of the bill – which would allow the transfer of criminal suspects to mainland China – was effectively the best face-saving option Lam and her political bosses could stomach without being seen as being weak and caving in completely to international and domestic pressure.

Protesters call on Carrie Lam to resign. Photo: Sam Tsang

In the face of the worst political storm to hit the city since the 1997 handover, analysts said suspension was the best way to keep her supporters and pro-government allies on her side and yet not open Lam’s government and Beijing to being seen as completely vulnerable to pressure.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, a vice-chairman of Beijing’s semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said: “Beijing had repeatedly voiced support for the changes to the extradition laws and if it is totally shelved, to the central government, it would be a total defeat.

“And it would open a Pandora’s box of other demands and the foreign forces could, through the opposition camp here, take effective control of Hong Kong’s governance.”

Live: Nearly two million people march through streets of Hong Kong to oppose extradition bill, organisers say

He added that the bill was now being seen as a football to be kicked about in the larger geopolitical battle between China and the United States, which was seeking to suppress Beijing’s rise.

“The opposition won’t be satisfied even if the bill is withdrawn and would ask for other things,” Lau said.

Hong Kong-based China watcher Hui Ching, research director at think tank Zhi Ming Institute, echoed the sentiment.

“Even if the bill is dropped, the opposition won’t stop and they will shift their demands to other areas, like universal suffrage because they will say the present problem is because Lam is not directly elected. That will only give rise to more troubles to Beijing.”

Hui believed Lam had wanted to contain the focus of public discontent within the extradition law row.

In an abrupt about-face, Lam told a news conference on Saturday she felt “deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work … have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society” and she announced the work on the extradition bill would be suspended.

Asked why she did not withdraw it anyway, Lam said pulling the bill would give people the impression that loopholes in the city’s legal and extradition systems did not need to be plugged when those changes were long overdue.

Her allies pointed out though that the effect of a suspension was the same as a withdrawal.

New People’s Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who also sits on Lam’s cabinet, the Executive Council, said the suspension meant the bill was effectively dead, given the term of the legislature would end next July.

Her fellow Exco colleague, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, also said in a radio interview on Sunday that it would be very unlikely the government would take the bill back to the legislature.

Based on checks by the Post on Legco’s rules and precedents, it would appear more likely for the bill to lapse than for it to have a chance of passing by the end of the current term, even if the administration decided to suddenly hit the reboot button.

Lam had promised to consult the public on the issue of extradition, and said she would not set any deadline to the exercise.

Assuming she did start the consultation and it ended in five months – a typical time frame for such an exercise – in December, the bill could be discussed again in Legco’s security panel. It would likely be followed by months of detailed scrutiny in a bills committee.

While bills committees for uncontentious legislation could finish their work within a few months, such committees have been known to spend up to two years deliberating on more difficult legislation. In short, the bill was thus killed, said pro-establishment lawmakers pointing to the typical passage of legislation.

But a pro-establishment lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believed Lam would still not say she was “withdrawing” the bill, no matter how big the turnout of Sunday’s march.

“Lam announced on Saturday that she would not withdraw it, do you think she will change her mind just because lots of people marched today?” he asked.

“The opposition camp is calling for her to step down. If she gives in like that, should she be stepping down too if people continue to come out and march?”

The lawmaker also believed that as foreign politicians had weighed in on the issue, Beijing’s position would only have hardened, given the pressure was morphing into interference in national security issues. The chorus of foreign voices only made Beijing more determined to hold the line, rather than to completely bow to pressure.

However, Cheung Chor-yung, a political scientist at City University, said: “Carrie Lam had missed the best time to contain the damage. Now, whatever she does she cannot save much face – or Beijing’s face.”

He said the Hong Kong government should have announced the shelving of the bill after the massive march on June 9 when a record one million people, according to the organisers’ headcount, took to the streets to protest.

Cheung added that even though there was little actual difference between suspending and withdrawing the bill, it was impossible for the pan-democrats to accept Lam’s decision on Saturday, partly because their supporters would not want them to and it would also suit their own agenda to press her against the political wall.

“How can they answer to residents who remain so angry about Lam? The ball was still in Lam’s court.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Suspended fugitive bill seen ‘dying a natural death’