Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill on Wednesday, saying she wanted to initiate a dialogue with the public after three months of often violent protests and the arrest of more than 1,100 people.

“Many would say that we need a common basis to start such a dialogue, and that this has to start with the Chief Executive,” she said in pre-recorded video footage. “The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns.”

However, Lam refused to set up an independent commission to investigate incidents linked to the protests.

She said she has appointed Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping, a retired senior civil servant, and Paul Lam Ting-kwok, a former chairman of the Bar Association and barrister, as new members of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to assist with their work.

She said the government would seriously follow up recommendations made in the IPCC’s report.

From this month, Lam and key officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue and find ways to address the discontent in society and to look for solutions. People from all walks of life, with different stances and backgrounds are invited to share their views and air their grievances, Lam said.

Lam said she would invite community leaders, professionals and academics to independently examine and review society’s deep-seated problems and to advise the government on solutions.

Mixed reactions

Not all were satisfied with the news. Liberal Party lawmaker Michael Tien Pak-sun said Lam’s withdrawal of the extradition law came too late as society’s focus had already shifted. He said the government had to set up an independent commission to investigate all incidents linked to the protests.

Pro-democracy activists also voiced determination to press on with their broader democracy campaign.

“Too little, too late,” said Joshua Wong, a prominent activist who was arrested late last week as part of a police swoop of leading pro-democracy figures. “We urge the world too to [be] alert this tactic and not to be deceived by HK and Beijing Govt. They have conceded nothing in fact, and a full-scale clampdown is on the way.”

Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, said the group would continue to organize peaceful protests to urge the Hong Kong government to meet the remaining four demands.

Leung Yiu-ting, head of the student union at Education University, agreed, while Isaac Cheng Ka-long, vice-chairman of Demosisto and a representative of the Platform of Class Boycotts in Secondary Schools, said protesters would escalate their actions if police continue to suppress protests by force.

Stock market up

Business people and investors, however, appeared to respond positively. Hong Kong’s stock market jumped on Wednesday after local media reported that the embattled city leader planned to fully withdraw the loathed extradition bill, which was one of the main demands of pro-democracy protesters.

The Hang Seng index jumped more than 3% in afternoon trading after the South China Morning Post and HK01 both published reports that the pro-Beijing chief executive was about to shelve the bill.

Lam met with pro-establishment lawmakers and politicians at Government House at 4pm before making the announcement. The extradition bill – which would have allowed certain individuals to face trial in mainland China – had previously been suspended but protesters said it must be scrapped.

Scrapping the bill was one of five demands made by the protesters, who have taken to the streets over the past 13 weeks to voice not just opposition to the legislation, but also overall governance of the city in demonstrations that have become increasingly violent.

The other demands are the withdrawal of “riot” charges laid against people who took part in protests on June 12, the setting up of an independent probe into events during the three months of protests, the release of all arrested protesters and the implementation of universal suffrage.

Critics argued that as long as the bill remains on the legislative agenda, there was every chance it could be resuscitated within the Legislative Council’s current term, which ends next year.

Lam resisted the pressure, saying the bill was suspended to signal that the government’s intention – to close existing loopholes to the legislation to go after criminals who were treating the city as a safe haven – remained a worthy and legitimate goal.

‘Cool things down’

Prior to the announcement, a government source told the Post: “This gesture to formally withdraw is a bid to cool down the atmosphere… The chief executive started to change her mind after meeting with 19 city leaders two weeks ago. She heeded their views on how to de-escalate the tensions.”

On Tuesday evening, an audio recording obtained by Reuters had Lam reportedly saying she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the city’s political crisis. She told businesspeople in a closed-door meeting last week that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the social unrest in Hong Kong has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

There have been regular and often violent clashes between protesters and police since early June. Riot police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and beat them with batons, while protesters have resisted by throwing bricks, bamboo sticks, metal bars and fire-bombs.

Serious ill-feeling has built up on both sides. In a clash in Kowloon Bay on August 24, several Special Tactical Squad officers in full protective gear had to retreat after being attacked by protesters.

Emergency ordinance

On August 27, Lam said the government had an obligation to consider all legal tools, including the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, to stop all violent protests. That law was formulated in 1922 and rarely used by the colonial British government until the 1967 leftist riots. If used today it would give Lam sweeping powers to authorize arrests, detention, deportations and other punishment, as well as censoring the press, seizing property, changing laws or enacting new ones, along with total control of all transport, manufacturing and trade in the city.

However, Legislative Council member and Liberal Party chairman Felix Chung Kwok-pan warned that use of the old law would hit investors’ confidence due to a lack of free flow of information and goods and could cause many expats to leave the city.

Hong Kong has faced the most severe crisis since the 1997 handover, Xu Luying, spokeswoman of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in a media briefing on Tuesday. Xu said the central government backed the Hong Kong government to take all possible measures to bring about a return of law and order and to stop violent protests.

Under the Basic Law and Garrison Law, she said the central government can send PLA troops to Hong Kong if the Hong Kong government asks for it, or the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress declares that the city is in a state of emergency. Deployment of PLA would not mean the end of ‘One country two systems’, she said, as all procedures would be done according to the Basic Law.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a senior counsel and an Executive Council member. Photo: RTHK

The Hong Kong Police can hire special constables to support their operations, including paperwork for the prosecution of arrested protesters, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a senior counsel and an Executive Council member, said in a radio program at RTHK on Wednesday.

Tong said under Section 40 of the Public Order Ordinance, the chief executive can authorize the Commissioner of Police to appoint any person who is willing to act as a special constable for a specified period.

But he said the Hong Kong government had never used this ordinance and should only do that if necessary. He said potential job candidates do not have to be local people but it is unlikely that mainland police can take these jobs as they don’t know much about the law and practices in Hong Kong.

He said he had reservations about Emergency Ordinance being used as it would grant Lam the power to change local laws and that could create political problems. He said the city government may eventually have to seek help from mainland armed police or the PLA if local police don’t have the manpower to contain the crisis.

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– With reporting by AFP