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.
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.
“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.
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.