Hong Kong suspends controversial extradition bill after backlash

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced that a debate on a controversial extradition bill will be suspended, after hundreds of thousands of people in the territory protested against it.

“There were indeed inadequacies, the bill has caused a lot of division in society,” Lam said on Saturday. She said there were supporters on both sides of the debate over the legislation. 

The extradition bill would allow Hong Kong’s chief executive to send suspected offenders to places with which the territory has no formal extradition agreement for trial. 

It would apply to Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city to be sent to mainland China and has many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Opponents of the bill fear it could make residents of the city vulnerable to politically-motivated charges in China’s court system and comes as part of a wider move by Beijing to scale back the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys under the so-called “one country, two systems” principle put in place as it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

‘Worries, doubts’

“I don’t think we are in a position to retract the bill,” Lam said, because it would send the message that it was not needed.

Instead, she said, they would suspend work on the legislation, offer more explanations to address the “worries, doubts and misunderstanding” the bill has sparked. 

“We need to restore peace and order in Hong Kong,” she said.

Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Hong Kong, said: “This is a short-term victory for these protesters that this law won’t proceed further but it has not been cancelled.”

The bill’s opponents were not satisfied with the suspension of the debate. 

“This so-called concession on the part of Carrie Lam, comes too little, too late. If she will not scrap the controversial bill, the Hong Kong people will refuse to retreat,” Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo said.

“Democrats in Hong Kong simply cannot, cannot, accept this suspension decision, because the suspension is temporary. The pain is still there. You’re just delaying the pain.”

HK vigil

The suspension was a climbdown for the territory’s leader who had been defiant in the face of criticism from business and legal bodies and a protest last Sunday that was the biggest political demonstration in the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Organisers say a million people took part in the march. A second demonstration on Wednesday descended into violence which in part halted debate on the bill. 

It has now been suspended indefinitely.

“This political calculation comes on the heels of a miscalculation by Carrie Lam. She didn’t expect to get this kind of backlash from Hong Kongers so she is having to back-pedal,” Heidler said. 

Protesters had wanted the legislation abandoned. 

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organised last week’s rally, said protests will continue on Sunday, while a strike is planned for Monday.

“We need to tell the government that the Hong Kong people will persist and will not discontinue our protest towards the government unless we see the withdrawal of the bill,” Jimmy Sham, from the organization, told reporters.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Saturday that the Chinese government “expresses support, respect and understanding” for Lam’s decision. 

Beijing backs the unpopular bill.

As of Friday afternoon, more than 30,000 people had signed a petition protesting against the use of force by authorities during the clashes with protesters two days earlier, which saw anti-riot police deploy tear gas, water cannon and pepper spray against those demonstrating.

Lam had been under increasing pressure in recent days. 

On Friday, Executive Council member Bernard Chan told Hong Kong cable television he did not think that a formal discussion on the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the semi-autonomous territory’s Legislative Council, should continue.

Lam said there was no deadline as to when the executive might move forward with the legislation, that there would be consultations with various parties before the next steps were decided.

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