Hong Kong protesters vow to stay on the streets despite Carrie Lam concession

Demonstrators say withdrawing extradition bill is too little, too late, as call for inquiry into police force rejected

The decision by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, to withdraw the controversial extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese territory into its worst political crisis in years seems unlikely to end the months-long protests in the semi-autonomous city – with police violence remaining a key concern for demonstrators.

Many ordinary Hong Kong residents, as well as protesters, have lambasted the move as too little, too late, and vowed to continue demonstrating. Late on Wednesday, dozens shouted slogans and set up makeshift barricades outside a police station in the Mong Kok district in the first protest after Lam’s announcement.

Her statement came almost three months after the first mass protest against the bill, which would have resulted in citizens being extradited to China’s opaque courts for trial. The protests have since morphed into a broader, and increasingly violent, anti-government movement, with animosity between police and protesters reaching boiling point.

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

Since June, there have been protests almost every weekend, many turning violent. Smaller scale clashes have happened nearly every night in various districts in recent weeks. Police on Wednesday said 1,183 people had been arrested since 9 June.

Joshua Wong, a high-profile protester who was arrested along with a number of activists last week, said “the intensified police brutality in the previous weeks have left an irreversible scar to the entire Hong Kong society” and was the reason many people did not believe the bill withdrawal was “a sincere move”.

The 22-year-old, the face of the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong in 2014, said the government in Beijing hoped to cool down the protests by withdrawing the bill, “But our determination and courage to fight for freedom will still continue.”

“I hope the people in China can understand that democracy, freedom and human rights are universal values that Hong Kong people are fighting for,” he told journalists before a forum in Taipei, Taiwan, where he is visiting.

“We will continue to fight for it. I hope there is one day that Hong Kong and even China would become a place where people can enjoy democracy and freedom.”

Hongkongers interviewed by the Guardian on Wednesday said the bill’s withdrawal would not dampen the protests, as the crisis had snowballed into a much bigger movement. Infuriated by the police’s use of force, they want the government to set up an independent body to investigate police wrongdoing, a request Lam again rejected on Wednesday.

The police’s use of force has escalated in recent weeks while protesters have also resorted to increasingly violent measures. Police have used water cannons, teargas, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and severe beatings to quell unrest, and also chased protesters into residential areas, metro stations and even ferry piers. In retaliation, protesters have thrown molotov cocktails at police, and vandalised and set public facilities on fire in what they said were defensive moves.

This week, as the new school term started, riot police turned up outside schools where students had boycotted classes and staged protests. Many young people said they felt intimidated by the police. Reports of maltreatment and sexual abuse of detained protesters in custody that have emerged in recent weeks have further fuelled anger. Two men were hospitalised after police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray on demonstrators outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station late on Tuesday, an example of the police brutality that many protesters say needs to be investigated.

“Of course I don’t accept this. Why didn’t she do this three months ago? None of this [mess] would have happened. Now, so many people have been arrested and so many have been beaten over their heads,” said a 57-year-old construction worker, who gave his surname as Chow.

Another protester, who gave his surname as Chan, who said he had faced off with the police in many violent conflicts over recent weeks, said he would continue taking to the streets because he was outraged the authorities were not making the police accountable for the use of excessive force.

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

“So many people have been beaten and maltreated by the police. If she [Lam] really wants to solve the problem she should thoroughly investigate police violence,” he said.

Many protesters in Hong Kong want the government to hold an inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Many protesters in Hong Kong want the government to hold an inquiry into alleged police brutality. Photograph: Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA

In formally withdrawing the bill, Lam has satisfied one of the protesters’ five demands, which also include the setting up of an independent body to investigate police violence; a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots”; amnesty for those arrested; and democratic reforms to give Hong Kong residents universal suffrage.

Lam said again on Wednesday she would not set up an independent body to investigate alleged police brutality. She said the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) already took responsibility for that, and would engage with international experts to work on a report. Critics say the body is full of pro-government figures, who are unlikely to carry out an unbiased investigation.

Lam also said she would not concede to other demands, such as stopping referring to the protests as riots and dropping charges against protesters, saying these were up to the department of justice and government prosecutors.

She said universal suffrage, which the umbrella movement in 2014 failed to pressure the government into granting, should be “discussed within the legal framework”.

Many people interviewed by the Guardian said all their demands must be met, with the most urgent being an inquiry into police violence, saying those who had been maltreated must be vindicated.

They said the escalating police brutality and the government’s hostility towards ordinary people in the past three months have made it hard for them to trust the authorities again.

A masked spokeswoman dressed in black speaking on behalf of a group of protesters at a press conference late Wednesday said the withdrawal of the bill was a quick fix like “a band-aid on rotten flesh”.

“Does the government honestly think that the trauma, grievances and anguish they caused could be so easily dismissed with two syllables? Expecting the word ‘withdraw’ to salvage all they have caused is childish and tone-deaf at best,” she said.

“Lam is just trying to fool us; Hong Kongers will never accept such a deal. Look at how much we have sacrificed, this deal is humiliating,” said a university administrator called Zoe.

Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

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