Calls mount for compromise over unpopular Hong Kong bill

Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press
Hundreds of mothers holding placards, some of which read "If we lose the young generation, what's left of Hong Kong", and lit smartphones protest against the amendments to the extradition law in Hong Kong on Friday, June 14, 2019.

Hong Kong – Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam faced calls from both outside and within her government to delay extradition legislation that has spurred massive protests.

Some members of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s Cabinet, said she should perhaps rethink plans to rush the bills’ passage. Meanwhile, a group of former senior government officials on Friday urged her not to force a confrontation by pushing ahead with the unpopular bills, which would allow Hong Kong suspects to be tried in mainland China.

“It can be said the government perhaps should consider other options,” said Bernard Chan, a leading member of the Executive Council. He said a delay might be one possibility.

One of the legislature’s pro-Beijing members, Michael Tien, said on Facebook that the bill was unneeded. “We’re the laughing stock of the world,” he said.

Many in Hong Kong fear the measures would undermine the former British colony’s legal autonomy. As of Friday afternoon, more than 30,000 people had signed a petition protesting the use of force by police during violent clashes with protesters on Wednesday.

More than 1,000 people joined a peaceful “mother’s protest” Friday evening in a downtown garden. Speakers at the rally called for Lam to step down while authorities braced for more protests over the weekend.

The standoff between police and protesters is Hong Kong’s most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts.

It has also drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups, prompting Beijing to lash back with warnings against “interference” in its internal affairs. China’s foreign ministry said Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Robert Forden, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, on Friday.

Le urged the U.S. to treat Hong Kong “objectively and fairly,” the ministry said in a statement. It added that “China will respond further to the U.S.’s actions.”

Hong Kong’s busy downtown area was calm Friday morning after days of protests by students and human rights activists. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday, challenging Lam’s 2-year-old government, and protesters had kept up a presence through Thursday night, singing hymns and holding up signs criticizing the police for their handling of the demonstrations.

Demonstrators say they are committed to preventing the government from enacting amendments they see as eroding the freedoms and protections promised when Britain ended its colonial rule of the city in 1997, handing sovereignty to Beijing.

The clashes Wednesday drew tens of thousands of mostly young residents and forced the legislature to postpone debate on the bill.

Pressure on the Hong Kong leader, caught between a restive public and Communist rulers in Beijing, is growing, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Calls to amend the plan or for Carrie Lam to step down are coming from many sectors, including business leaders, he noted, adding that it’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing who will decide, not Carrie Lam.

“If the momentum continues to grow, then there is a high possibility that Xi Jinping might strike for a compromise and postpone the bill indefinitely,” Willy Lam said. “There’s a possibility Beijing might strike a compromise and the blame will be put on Carrie Lam.”

Police said they arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly during Wednesday’s protest. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said 22 officers had been injured in the fracas and hospitals said they had treated 81 people for protest-related injuries.

Signs were posted Friday on the walls of a pedestrian bridge near the city’s government headquarters, including photocopies of the famed Associated Press “Tank Man” picture that became a symbol of resistance to China’s bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Other signs criticized the police for their use of force in fighting back against protesters.

The debris-strewn area around the building, which houses the Legislative Council, was blocked off by police while sanitation workers gathered rubbish and police officers checked identity cards before letting people into the area.

It is unclear how the local leadership might defuse the crisis, given Beijing’s strong support for the extradition bill and its distaste for dissent.

Anson Chan, a former chief secretary for Hong Kong, said Lam still could keep her post if she backs down.

“What the people are attempting to tell is that we are very worried about the consequences of passing the extradition bill, because no one will feel safe, even in their own beds, after passage of this bill,” Chan said in an interview.

“It places everybody’s individual freedom and safety at risk,” said Chan, who as chief secretary was the top local civil servant under former British Gov. Chris Patton.

Beijing has condemned the protests but so far has not indicated whether it is planning harsher measures. President Xi, China’s strongest leader in decades, has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing’s dictates, saying it would not tolerate the city becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a foreign-inspired campaign to undermine its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.

Lam, the chief executive, declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting,” potentially raising severe legal penalties for those arrested for taking part. In past cases of unrest, the authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders. In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.

Hong Kong residents enjoy liberties denied to Chinese living in the mainland: June 4 brought one of the biggest vigils in recent years to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protests in Beijing.

But many in the city worry their freedoms have been diminishing since Xi came to power in 2012.

The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified concern over the territory weakening legal autonomy. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is under investigation for allegedly leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.