Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam renewed her calls for “dialogue” today, urging pro-democracy protesters to end their demonstrations after her surprise decision to bow to one of their key demands was condemned as too little, too late.
Lam, the city’s pro-Beijing leader, surprised many on Wednesday when, after three months of stubbornly refusing to accede to protesters’ demands amid intensifying violence, she suddenly announced she was scrapping a hugely unpopular extradition law.
Millions of people have taken to Hong Kong’s streets since June in the biggest challenge to China’s rule since the semi-autonomous city’s handover from the British in 1997. The protests were sparked by a proposed bill allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland, but as Beijing and Lam refused to budge, the movement morphed into a broader campaign calling for democratic reforms and police accountability.
On Wednesday evening Lam released a video message saying she was scrapping the bill entirely, a key demand of protesters.
At a press conference on Thursday, Lam continued her newfound conciliatory tone, saying her decision to fully withdraw the bill was an attempt “to help prevent violence and stop chaos as soon as possible, resume the social order and help our economy and people’s livelihood to move forward.”
“It is obvious to many of us that the discontentment in society extends far beyond the bill,” she added, saying she recognized that anger over inequality and the government had spiraled and needed to be resolved.
She renewed her appeal for protesters to enter into a dialogue with her administration, and called on moderate protesters to abandon their more militant allies who have frequently clashed with riot police over the last 14 weeks.
But there is little sign her belated concession will end the protests or heal the divisions that have only widened over the summer.
Since Lam’s announcement on Wednesday evening, there has been uniform condemnation across the protester camp, with activists vowing to keep up their campaign.
At a “citizens press conference” on Wednesday evening — a useful gauge of the youth-led wing on the frontlines of rallies — an unidentified woman wearing a mask and helmet rejected the concession.
“If Carrie Lam had withdrawn the bill two months ago, that may have been a quick fix,” she said. “But applying a band-aid months later on to rotting flesh will simply not cut it.”
Online forums used by protesters have filled with calls for new rallies — including plans on Saturday to again disrupt transport links to the city’s airport, a major regional aviation hub.
More moderate pan-democrat lawmakers have also rejected the concession, and even some pro-establishment figures within Lam’s camp have said the bill withdrawal will not do enough to curb public anger.
In addition to calls to scrap the extradition bill, protesters had four core demands: an inquiry into police use of force, an amnesty for anyone arrested, a retraction of the label “rioters” to describe protesters, and universal suffrage — the last a red line for Beijing.
So far Lam has consistently rejected those demands, even though many say backing an independent inquiry could peel some moderate protesters away from the movement.
The timing of Lam’s bill withdrawal was a surprise, but it came after leaked audio recordings emerged of her suggesting her options were limited because Beijing viewed the protests as a direct threat to China’s sovereignty and national security.
China has increasingly portrayed the protests as a foreign-backed “color revolution,” and described radical demonstrators as “terrorists” and “separatists”.
Speaking Thursday, Lam insisted her decision to withdraw the bill was hers alone and that she received no direction from the mainland — although she said Beijing supported the move.
“They respect my decision and they support it at every stage,” she said.