‘The bill is dead’ but Hong Kong protesters are not appeased by Carrie Lam’s declaration

Experts say level of distrust in the city’s leader is so deep that protests will continue

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, attempted to end what has been the territory’s worst political crisis in decades by declaring a controversial extradition bill that set off weeks of protests “dead”.

Yet the operative word protesters were looking for was “withdraw”, or chit wui, a key demand of the demonstrators to formally withdraw the bill from parliament. Lam has said the bill, already suspended last month in response to protests, would expire at the end of the legislative session that finishes next July. Instead she used a Cantonese idiom to describe “reaching the end of one’s life”.

Why are people protesting?

The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Public anger – fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators – has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world's most expensive, densely populated cities.

The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station – while authorities seemingly did little to intervene. 

Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

Lam announced on 4 September that she was withdrawing the bill.

Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong has grown in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.

Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.

The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.

How have the authorities responded?

Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.

Beijing has ramped up its accusations that foreign countries are “fanning the fire” of unrest in the city. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has ordered the US to “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form”.

Lily Kuo and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

Soon after the press conference, protesters panned her “word games” and vowed to organise further protests if she refused to meet demands. Others said that without the bill’s withdrawal, according to the rules and procedures of the legislature, they could only rely on Lam’s promises that it would not be revived.

“She said nothing really. Her personal guarantee is meaningless,” said Yan, a 35-year-old construction worker who asked not to give his full name. “The bill has not been withdrawn and they can still bring it back in another form,” he said.

The extradition bill, which critics fear would be used as a political tool by Beijing to bring dissidents and critics of the government to China, has been a lightning rod for discontent in Hong Kong and an example of the erosion of the city’s freedoms under Beijing’s control. The former British colony, returned to China in 1997, is meant to operate with a “high degree of autonomy”, with its own courts and legislature.

Lam, elected by a 1,194-member committee dominated by pro-Beijing representatives, has been the focus of much of that discontent, with protesters calling for her removal.

“The level of distrust in Lam and her government is so deep at this point that these half measures are unlikely to be accepted and protests will likely continue,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based writer and author of the book, City of Protest.

Hong Kong’s democratic struggles since 1997

1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems”. The “Basic Law” constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China. 

2003: Hong Kong’s leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted. 

2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong’s voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive’s selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing. 

2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of “fake universal suffrage” and “fake democracy”. The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong’s most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist party’s favoured candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites. 

2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organisers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. After weeks of protest, often meeting with violent reprisals from the Hong Kong police, Lam announced that she would withdraw the bill

Protesters referred to Lam’s track record of going back on promises made to the public, for example that she would resign if the public demanded it. On Tuesday, Lam said she would not be stepping down.

Critics say that even if the bill is truly finished, protesters are not likely to be appeased. “The bill is dead, but people don’t trust her anymore,” said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker with the Civic party.

Lam also refused to meet other demonstrator demands, including for the release of those arrested in the protests and an independent investigation into police use of force on protesters on 12 June – when teargas, rubber bullets and truncheons were deployed on largely peaceful crowds.

“The campaign will go on. People want concrete results; they are not happy with what they have seen so far,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.

While the demonstrations may decline in scale, Cheng believes protesters will continue. Their demands have gone beyond simply the withdrawal of the bill. Protesters are also urging the government to implement democratic reforms including universal suffrage, a key issue in a previous wave of demonstrations in 2014.

“The core of this political movement is the demand for free elections, because all governance crisis stems from political inequality,” said Joshua Wong, a student leader in the 2014 protests and secretary general of the Demosistō party. “Protests continue,” he said.


Lily Kuo in Beijing and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

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