Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 15, 2019. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Two years into her five-year term of office, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor lost her big political bet when she felt compelled to, in her words, “suspend” a legislative vote on the controversial extradition bill amendment.

“The government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise,” Lam said in a media briefing on Saturday, referring to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. She said the government will continue to consult the public about the bill but there is no deadline.

“We have no intention to set a deadline for this work and promise to report to and consult members of the Legislative Council panel on security before we decide on the next step forward.

Lam avoided answering questions about whether she will step down. She said she will continue to handle social and economic matters in the city.

Civil Human Rights Front, organizer of a June 9 rally that was joined by more than a million people, said it will continue with plans to hold a rally on Sunday, June 16, to call for the withdrawal of the bill and for Lam to step down.

Read: HK groups call for rally Sunday, strikes Monday

Lam said the bill – which critics saw as a way for Beijing to gain further power over the former British colony – had been proposed by herself and her Hong Kong colleagues alone.

In this incident, Lam said, the central government took a role, as usual, to “understand, trust, respect and support” the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region chief executive and government. She said she felt sad and regretful for failing to explain the bill to the public clearly.

“I feel deep sorrow and regret that the deficiencies in our work and various other factors have stirred up substantial controversies and disputes in society following the relatively calm periods of the past two years,” Lam said.

History of the bill

The controversy over the bill started on February 13 when the Hong Kong government submitted the amendment, which would grant the chief executive the power to initiate a legal procedure that can extradite criminal suspects to another place – including Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China.

The government said the amendment was aimed specifically at being able to extradite Chan Tong-kai, who admitted he had killed his Hong Kong girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan in February 2018. Chan is jailed in Hong Kong for money laundering until October. He had withdrawn money from the victim’s credit card.

As the Panel Committee of the bill failed to elect a chairman amid arguments between the democracy and pro-establishment camps, the latter turned to the House Committee to select pro-business and pro-establishment lawmaker Abraham Shek Lai-him to lead the panel committee. On the morning of May 11, Shek failed to start the meeting due to chaotic situation in the chamber.

The situation became more complicated as the trade war between United States and China started in May. On May 10, US President Donald Trump lifted the tariff to 25% on US$200 billion list of Chinese goods. The US Department of Commerce also put Huawei Technologies into its Entity List on national security reasons, barring US firms from selling goods and services to the Shenzhen-based company.

On May 17, Wang Zhimin, Director of the Liaison Office of the Central Government in Hong Kong, held a meeting with the pro-establishment lawmakers, saying that Beijing wanted the extradition law to pass in Legco.

In the following three weeks, different sectors in Hong Kong kept voicing their concerns about the extradition law but Lam continued plans to push through the legislation on June 12.

Photo: Asia Times

Between 2:30 and 10 pm on June 9, a total of 1.03 million of Hong Kong protestors rallied on street to oppose the bill, according to the organizer’s estimate. After that, thousands of people continued to protest in Admiralty and Central. The Hong Kong government said in a statement at around 11 pm that efforts to pass the amendment would continue on June 12, triggering a clash between young protestors and armed police. A total of 200 people, 80% of them between 18 and 25, were surrounded by the police for allegedly staging a “riot.”

Protest against the extradition law on June 12 Photo: Asia Times

On June 11 evening, thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Legco building in Admiralty. At 8 am on June 12, protestors occupied all key roads in the area, including Lung Wo Road, which is the main entrance of the Legco and government headquarters. The Legco failed to start the meeting as scheduled at 11 am. The police had not taken any action until they started firing tear gas and rubber and bean bag bullets at protestors at 3 pm. The clearance operation continued until midnight as protesters retreated to the Pacific Place shopping mall.

Read: Police criticized for firing tear gas, rubber bullets at protesters

On June 12 evening, Lam and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung called the protests of June 12 an“organized riot.”

Since the massive protests, Beijing has sought to distance itself as public anger spiraled. “The central government gave no instruction, no order about the… amendment,” Lu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to Britain, told the BBC.

Media reports said the government had claimed the protests involved other countries trying to start a color revolution such as those that broke out in the former Soviet Bloc and the Balkans in the early 2000s. Beijing blamed “external forces,” a term it uses to refer to western countries, for the Hong Kong protests.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Thursday it was vital that the extradition arrangements in Hong Kong be in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British joint declaration. US President Donald Trump said he hoped Hong Kong could “work it out” with Beijing.

Although some protestors were seen throwing bricks and pushing barricades at the armed police, religious and education groups did not blame them but criticized the armed police for using excessive force against tens of thousands of peaceful protestors.

The Legco suspended its meeting on Thursday and Friday, June 13 and 14, apparently pending a decision from the ExCo. ExCo convenor Bernard Chan said resumption of the discussion of the bill would lead to more clashes between protestors and the police.

Read: Top HK advisors soften stance on extradition bill

Han Zheng Photo: Xinhua

On Friday afternoon, more pro-Beijing ExCo members suggested postponing the bill amendment. According to Sing Tao Daily, Han Zheng, one of the seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, had recently met Lam in Shenzhen to talk about the situation. At 10:30 pm on Friday, Lam held a meeting with key Hong Kong officials, saying that the bill would be postponed. On Saturday morning, the Liaison Office official briefed the pro-establishment camp.

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician and former Legco President, said the suspension of the bill would help ease the political tension in the city but the whole situation will leave a scar in many Hong Kong people’s hearts.

Read: More than a million HK people rally against extradition law

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