HONG KONG (Reuters) - China redoubled its support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday after days of protests against a planned extradition bill, and a source close to Lam said Beijing was unlikely to let her go even if she tried to resign.
Lam’s attempts to pass a bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China for trial triggered the biggest and most violent protests in decades in the former British colony, now under Chinese rule.
As the crisis entered its second week, demonstrators and opposition politicians braved intermittent rain to gather near the government’s offices and urge her to kill the bill and quit.
The upheaval comes at a delicate time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is grappling with a deepening U.S. trade war, slowing economic growth and regional strategic tension.
Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, enjoying freedoms not granted to the mainland, including an independent judiciary but short of a fully democratic vote.
Many residents are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip and what they see as the erosion of those freedoms. Many say changes to the rule of law could imperil Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre.
“The Chinese government, the central government, has always fully affirmed the work of chief executive Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong government,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news conference in Beijing.
“The central government will continue to firmly support the chief executive and the SAR government’s governing in accordance with the law,” he said, referring to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Hong Kong police said late on Monday that 32 people had been arrested since Wednesday, when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters.
Protest organisers said almost 2 million people - out of a population of around 7 million - turned out on Sunday to demand that Lam resign, in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since 1997.
The mass rally, which police said drew 338,000 participants at its peak, forced Lam to apologise for planning to push the bill through.
On Monday, protesters near the government’s offices blocked roads and urged Lam to withdraw the bill, release arrested students, drop the official description of a rally on Wednesday that involved clashes with the police as a riot, and step down.
A senior Hong Kong official close to Lam told Reuters that Beijing was not likely to let her do so, even if she wanted to, saying “it would create more problems than it solves, at all sorts of levels”.
Lam stopped short of explicitly killing the bill, but the official said the postponement meant it was effectively dead.
Still, many in Hong Kong are unhappy to have faced the prospect of legislation that lawyers and judges say risks exposing people to the mercy of a mainland justice system plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention.
The bill would cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living there or passing through.
“We cannot accept her apology, it doesn’t remove all our threats,” said social worker Brian Chau, one of several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.
In a coincidence of timing, 22-year-old Joshua Wong, the face of Hong Kong’s push for full democracy, walked free from prison on Monday.
“I will join to fight against this evil law,” said Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella” protests that blocked major roads for 79 days. “I believe this is the time for her, Carrie Lam the liar, to step down.”
Two former post-colonial leaders, Tung Chee-Hwa and Leung Chun-ying, were forced to cut short their time in office amid controversies linked to policies that stoked fears of Chinese encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
The latest crisis escalated during Wong’s five-week jail term for contempt of court. Until this month, the failure of the Umbrella protests to win concessions, coupled with prosecutions of at least 100 protesters, had discouraged many young people from going back out on the streets.
But Lam’s efforts to ram through the extradition bill galvanised opposition.
On Monday, the benchmark share index climbed 0.4%, having risen more than 1% in early trade, outperforming gains in Asia ex-Japan and onshore China.
Opposition politicians echoed marchers’ calls for both Lam and the proposed law to go.
“Her government cannot be an effective government, and will have much, much, much difficulties to carry on,” veteran Democratic Party legislator James To told government-funded broadcaster RTHK.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump was likely to raise the issue of Hong Kong human rights with China’s Xi if they met at the G20 summit in Japan next week.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said she would raise the protests with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who is on a visit to London to boost economic and financial cooperation.
Reporting by Marius Zaharia, John Ruwitch, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Farah Master, Vimvam Tong, Anne Marie Roantree, Noah Sin and Greg Torode in HONG KONG, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and William James in LONDON; Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Nick Macfie