Hong Kong’s leader suspends China extradition bill following mass protests

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The controversial bill allows criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China and has faced massive opposition.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam will “indefinitely suspend” a contentious extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China following a series of massive and sometimes violent street protests.

The New York Times reports the pro-Beijing Lam has consulted with her superiors in mainland China, and will hold off on attempting to push the bill through again in an attempt to quell public anger and avoid further violence. The government announced its decision ahead of another large protest planned for Sunday.

Lam, who is reportedly known for “never backing down in a fight,” had previously vowed to press on with the bill, comparing protesters to “stubborn children,” even after as many as 1 million people took to the streets last Sunday. A follow-up protest delayed a debate on the bill Wednesday.

Although the bill’s progress through the city’s legislative council has been delayed, Lam said the measure has not been abandoned.

“I believe that we cannot withdraw this bill, or else society will say that this bill was groundless,” the chief executive said.

Leading opposition figures say nothing less than the full withdrawal of the bill is acceptable, and protest leaders have said Sunday’s demonstration will proceed as planned.

Some activists made it clear they do not trust Lam; a spokesperson for the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the groups in charge of organizing the recent protests, said, “Hong Kong people do understand what is happening and we can see through the lies of Carrie Lam.” Another group, Demosistō, called on the protests to continue because “the Hong Kong government may restart the legislative process anytime in the future.”

This position was echoed by some lawmakers, including pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo, who responded to Lam’s decision by telling the Times, “This is not good enough, simply not right. We demand a complete scrapping of this controversial bill.”

The suspended proposal

The controversial extradition bill empowers Hong Kong officials to extradite wanted criminal suspects to stand trial in mainland China, and requires Hong Kong to extradite suspects to jurisdictions it lacks extraditions agreements with. China and Hong Kong don’t currently share an extradition agreement — when Hong Kong finalized its extradition accords in 1997 after being released from British rule, it didn’t include China due to its “fundamentally different criminal justice system” and “concerns over the mainland’s track record on the protection of fundamental rights.”

While Hong Kong is technically under the control of the People’s Republic of China, under the terms of the 1997 handover of power from the UK to China, the city is supposed to be allowed to govern itself until 2047 under under a policy known as “one country, two systems.” Essentially, this means that while Hong Kong is under Chinese sovereignty, it is supposed to be free to retain its own political and legal systems. However, Beijing has been pressuring Hong Kong’s leaders to pass laws that bring it more closely in line with the Chinese government, including this recent extradition law, which is sponsored by the pro-Beijing government.

Many fear that the new powers would allow China to target any person in Hong Kong that it wants. But as Vox’s Alex Ward writes, the protests are about much more than just this particular bill. Rather, they are about the future of democracy, with protesters viewing the proposed amendments as part of China’s creeping attempts to assert its authority over the semi-autonomous Hong Kong:

Experts say the newest flare-up is part of the long-term resistance movement to keep the city as independent as possible.

“The proposed change to the extradition law, which would open up Hong Kongers and others passing through the city to the vicissitudes of mainland Chinese justice, is the latest in a long list of actions that undermine democratic freedoms and the rule of law,” says [Hong Kong expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia Ben] Bland, who also wrote a book about life in post-handover Hong Kong.

The protests, which were mostly peaceful when they began last Sunday, saw even self-described “regular citizens” take to the streets, with one protestor telling the New York Times, “We are not activists. Even as regular citizens, we can’t stand to see China eroding away our freedom.”

The protests have escalated in recent days. Riot police clashed with protesters on Wednesday, firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at the crowd as demonstrators tried to rush Hong Kong’s main legislative buildings. The protesters ultimately delayed a scheduled debate on the bill, although, at the time, few expected that they would be able to delay it indefinitely.

Demonstrations continued immediately following Lam’s announcement. One protester fell to his death Saturday evening. The man had attached a banner reading “No extradition to China, total withdrawal of the extradition bill, we are not rioters, release the students and injured, Carrie Lam step down, help Hong Kong” to the side of a luxury mall. He died after missing an inflatable cushion first responders erected for him to jump onto.

Lawmaker Ray Chan blamed Lam for the protester’s death on Twitter, writing, “As butcher Carrie Lam’s regime remains in power, sad events including the loss of life are bound to happen.” He went on to call on the public to demonstrate Sunday in the fallen activist’s memory, writing, “We’ll honor the nameless hero and show the world the heartless bitch has no credibility. Kill the bill & get Carrie Lam fired!”

Lam has not yet made it clear when she plans to take the issue of the bill back up; she has, however, promised to listen to those who are against the measure.

“We will adopt the most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements,” Lam said.