Hong Kong protesters unimpressed by Lam’s ‘sincere’ apology

Chief suggests extradition law effectively shelved but protesters say key demands ignored

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has offered a “solemn” personal apology for the crisis that has engulfed the city since she tried to force a controversial extradition law on to the books.

The leader of the semi-autonomous city also hinted on Tuesday that she had effectively shelved the legislation, but protesters criticised her as insincere and said she had ignored their key demands.

In her first press conference since record crowds poured on to the streets of Hong Kong to denounce her on Sunday, the bureaucrat-turned-politician described going through an emotional time of “self-reflection”, and said she hoped to heal divisions that had opened up in Hong Kong society.

But opposition leaders and protesters said that instead of defusing “fears and anxieties” that Lam acknowledged were stirred up by the much-criticised extradition bill, her intransigence risked inflaming them.

“She is a walking disaster. She really did not respond to any of the demands,” said the veteran politician Emily Lau. Protesters want Lam to prepare her resignation, withdraw the extradition law, apologise both for police brutality at protests last week and for describing one as a riot, and to halt the roundup of activists.

“What’s so difficult about saying ‘I will withdraw the bill’?” Lau asked, after Lam gave a complex explanation of why the legislation she suspended last month would probably never make it on to the books.

She told journalists that after she suspended the bill at the weekend, it was likely to simply “time out”. The legislative session finishes in just over a year, and if the bill has not been passed by then it lapses and cannot be revived.

“I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties could not be adequately addressed,” Lam said. “If the bill does not make legislative council by July next year, it will expire and the government will accept that reality.”

Beyond that partial concession, Lam offered protesters little. She said she would not resign, avoided questions about an independent inquiry into the demonstrations and said only that protesters who had not used violence would not need to worry about rioting charges, citing a previous statement from the city’s police chief.

“It’s another bunch of rubbish,” said Freeman Yan, a protester. “She cannot hoodwink people with one lie after another. I don’t feel any sincerity. I don’t trust her. She can always revive the bill in a repackaged form.”

People in Hong Kong are worried the law would fatally damage the city’s economy and society by allowing both residents and visitors to be sent for trial in China’s opaque, Communist party-controlled courts.

A day earlier, Lam had reportedly told senior educators in private that suspension of the bill meant “total withdrawal”. But publicly using the word withdrawal, which was scrawled across countless protest signs at the weekend, might have been deemed too damaging for her crippled administration.

Lam had already faced a humiliating climbdown on Saturday, when she announced she would suspend the bill and apologised for failures of communication, only days after she promised to ram it through the legislature.

She insisted she acted alone trying to pass the law. But her efforts were endorsed by top Chinese leaders, and as Beijing’s handpicked choice to lead the city, her misjudgment has also damaged China’s autocratic president, Xi Jinping.

He is likely to be profoundly disturbed by a massive popular mobilisation that could provide ammunition or inspiration to his enemies inside China or abroad.

People came in record numbers on Sunday to march through the city centre, with organisers putting the turnout at nearly 2 million. Even Lam acknowledged that many in the streets were people who had previously steered clear of politics.

Public anger remains high, and with protesters still furious, both Lam and Beijing will be weighing the political cost of further concessions against the political risk of inflaming tensions by standing firm.

“[Lam] came out to apologise, but wanted to apologise without doing anything concrete. This is not going to satisfy anyone,” said another lawmaker, Charles Mok. “I keep getting messages saying she didn’t address what we were marching for.

“We are discussing how to keep up pressure on her, most importantly not to persecute young people.”

Some people were already calling for another march this week, but there are usually large demonstrations on 1 July, Hong Kong’s national day, and some activists may prefer to swell that crowd.

“We are very disappointed and angry,” said Bonnie Leung, the vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which has helped organise the demonstrations. “We do not accept Carrie Lam’s so-called apology.”

She said the group was still discussing next steps, but planned to open a formal complaint about police brutality and urged victims and anyone with photo or video evidence to come forward and support the case.

In Britain, which handed the former colony over to China in 1997, Foreign Office minister Mark Field told MPs allegations of “inappropriate use of force” by Hong Kong police should be “fully investigated” by the authorities in the territory, adding that in the past the Hong Kong authorities had fined police that had over-stepped the mark, and suggested there may need to be reforms to the ways in which Hong Kong’s chief executive is elected and legislative council. But he warned if Lam were removed a more hardline figure might replace her.

Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour


Emma Graham-Harrison and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

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