Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam stood by the city’s controversial extradition bill this morning, even after hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets to protest it, saying that the government would continue to forge ahead with the law despite the enormous levels of opposition.
Many had hoped that Sunday’s enormous protests would be enough to compel Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government to shelve the bill — which would allow extraditions to mainland China for the first time since the handover — as was the case the last time Hongkongers marched in such numbers against a controversial national security bill in 2003.
Lam, however, swiftly put an end to those hopes in a press conference, saying the bill would come up for a second reading at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, but that the government would continue to explain the bill’s built-in “safeguards” to win over opponents.
“I fully understand that during the march, many of the participants have expressed worries about the government’s attempts to amend the legislation,” she said. “We realize that our communication and explanation work has to continue…even after the enactment of the bill, because this is a very important piece of legislation.”
The government introduced a handful of concessions late last month in an effort to stem the tide of opposition from a wide swath of society, including legal groups, business associations, clergy, students, diplomats, and pro-democracy politicians and activists.
The measures included raising the minimum sentence for crimes covered under the law, permitting those tried in China to serve their sentences in Hong Kong, and requiring extradition requests to come from a jurisdiction’s top prosecutorial body.
Lam said the measures would be included in a “very solemn policy statement” at the bill’s second reading, and would be legally binding.
However, many at Sunday’s protest said that they had no faith in the government’s commitment to enforce the safeguards, and worried that they would find themselves arrested on mere “excuses” and subjected to China’s notoriously opaque legal system.
Rights groups and citizens alike have viewed Beijing as tightening its grip on Hong Kong, and have voiced concern that the city’s special freedoms under the “one country, two systems” framework are rapidly eroding. Lam, however, maintained that the central government had no hand in the extradition bill.
“So this bill is not about the mainland alone; this bill is not initiated by the Central People’s Government,” she said. “I have not received any legal instruction and mandate from Beijing; we are doing it out of our clear conscience and our commitment to Hong Kong.”
Lam’s popularity has plummeted since the extradition bill was first proposed, and calls for her to step down were just as common among protesters yesterday as calls to scrap the bill. But in response to a reporter’s question, Lam today said she had no plans to quit.
“I have been the chief executive of Hong Kong for about two years. I have spent every moment of my time to work for the benefit of Hong Kong, every aspect,” she said. “I think I will continue to do this in my utmost ability, and address the issues and concerns of Hong Kong people.”
She went on to urge the Legco to debate the law in a constructive fashion, though past hearings on the bill have literally descended into chaos. Despite the deep opposition to the bill, the pro-democratic camp in Legco doesn’t have the votes to block it if the pro-Beijing camp does indeed force it to a vote.
Sunday’s protest was likely the largest in Hong Kong in decades, with organizers saying more than a million people joined in. Though it was largely peaceful, clashes broke out at the Legco complex after the protest permit expired at midnight, as police sought to roust protesters who had vowed to remain there overnight.
In her remarks, Lam said authorities would be “taking very serious actions against those breaches of the law.” However, she also acknowledged that the protest was largely nonviolent, and reflected “the degree of civilization in Hong Kong society,” and thanked participants for their “scrutiny” of the government’s work.
“So there’s no question of us ignoring views expressed in society,” she said at one point. “But Hong Kong has to move on.”