The demonstrations that have taken over Hong Kong on a weekly basis since June are therefore unlikely to stop, and this concession from the government may do little to ease tensions in the autonomous city.
Lam made the announcement in a televised addressed on Wednesday, following massive student strikes this week and the 14th weekend of protest, which was met with violence as police and protesters clashed.
In her address, Lam said the extradition bill would be formally withdrawn “in order to fully allay public concerns.”
Lam offered some additional concessions, including adding new members to the Hong Kong police’s independent watchdog. Lam said she would do community outreach to talk to people to better understand their problems, and initiate a study on the causes of Hong Kong’s social injustices.
But even as Lam said she hoped these moves would jumpstart a dialogue, she remained critical of the protests, which she said had turned Hong Kong into an “unfamiliar place.”
“Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” she said. “We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times.”
Protesters, including several I spoke with over WhatsApp, said Lam’s statement falls way short of what protesters want.
“It seems like good news, but the word ‘withdraw’ is too late,” Ed, a 26-year-old protester told me over WhatsApp. He said citizens have been protesting for three months, “but the government [has] only fulfilled one of the protesters five demands.”
Other expressed skepticism that this was really a concession, and some suggested that Lam and her pro-Beijing government made this slight peace offering with the expectation of a more aggressive crackdown on freedoms in the future.
It’s a mark of just how broken the trust is between some Hongkongers and the government.
What Lam’s concession means — and what comes next
Lam’s announcement is still something of a turning point in the nearly three-month protest effort, though the movement has since transformed from a fight against this extradition bill into a larger battle for democracy in Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, the Hong Kong government introduced a bill proposing changes to the city’s extradition laws that would have allowed people who were arrested in Hong Kong to be sent for prosecution in countries that lack formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
That included mainland China, and many Hongkongers feared this would open up the territory — which is supposed to have a separate justice system under the “one country, two systems” policy — to arbitrary extraditions, including for those critical of the Chinese government.
Protests against the bill began in the spring and escalated in June, when millions took to the streets to peacefully oppose the bill. In mid-June, Lam announced she would “indefinitely suspend” the extradition bill. But pro-democracy activists didn’t trust her, as suspending the bill still meant she could bring it back for consideration at any time. They demanded Lam totally scrap and fully withdraw the legislation.
But protesters’ demands have also grown since then. They now include getting the government to retract its use of the word “riot” to classify the protests; release all protesters who have been arrested and drop any charges that have been brought against demonstrators; convene a serious, independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police and their tactics; and implement universal suffrage and direct elections for lawmakers and the chief executive.
Although Lam said Wednesday she would add commissioners to Hong Kong’s police watchdog, protesters said this wasn’t sufficient, as the commission is headed by a Lam loyalist. Protesters still want an independent body, unconnected to the government, to examine police tactics. Lam also made no mention of dropping charges against arrested protesters, who now number at about 1,000.
Lam admitted Wednesday that she wasn’t addressing all of the protesters’ grievances, but she said violent protests were pushing Hong Kong to a dangerous situation, language that’s more likely to anger pro-democracy advocates who pin the blame on Lam, who they see as dutifully loyal to Beijing.
C.K., a 39-year-old protester I previously interviewed about the unrest, told me Wednesday that Lam’s announcement might appease some of the less enthusiastic protesters, but probably would do little to stop the movement.
Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, dismissed Lam’s olive branch. “HK people are well-aware of [Lam’s] notorious track record. Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights,” he wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
“We urge the world too to alert this tactic and not to be deceived by HK and Beijing Govt. They have conceded nothing in fact, and a full-scale clampdown is on the way,” he added.
Tim, a 26-year-old protester, told me that people are still angry, and that Lam has lied “for too long.”
Ed, echoed this sentiment, saying Hongkongers just don’t trust the government anymore. “We believe they will push something more evil than the extradition bill soon,” he said.
The breakdown of trust between some Hongkongers and the government, including the police, have lessened the impact of these concessions. Much of the focus has turned toward what protesters see as the government and police’s heavy-handed response to demonstrators. What may have appeased or quelled the protests months ago has only made the other grievances more urgent, at least in the eyes of protesters.
Even some pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong expressed skepticism that this concession would be enough to end the crisis, without an independent investigation into police tactics.
Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, told the Washington Post, “The focus since the beginning of July has completely shifted now to the confrontation between police and rioters, and how the public perceives it. The public is totally polarized, but it is no longer about the extradition bill.”
Still, Lam’s attempts at appeasement are likely to bolster its own narrative that the protesters are violent and disorderly. Not everyone in Hong Kong fully supports the protests, and even those who are sympathetic may not totally agree with all of the protesters’ demands or tactics. If protesters reject the olive branch, it will strengthen their government’s line that these demonstrators are unruly and unreasonable and needlessly disruptive.
“If this does not put an end to the protests in Hong Kong, it will still make it easier for the authorities to use even more repressive methods to crackdown on the activist protesters,” Steve Tsang, director of London’s SOAS China Institute, told VICE News.
In China, too, where state media has cast the protesters as rioting hooligans, this will help sell that story, along with the narrative that the protests are just Western powers fueling unrest rather than an expression of what Hongkongers want.
China has, in recent weeks, grown increasingly impatient with the protests. State media mostly ignored them at first, but then began a targeted disinformation campaign to discredit the movement. China has also amassed troops and tanks across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzen, and has released videos of the armed forces doing drills. China’s rhetoric against the protests has grown increasingly harsh, including referring to the protests as “near terrorism.”
China also recognizes what’s at stake for continued protests in Hong Kong, and they’re eager for the unrest to stop. Whether the Hong Kong government’s concession was a genuine attempt to appease the crisis, or to give it cover for a more aggressive crackdown, is the biggest question about Lam’s announcement. But the protesters, at least, don’t seem ready to give up.