HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday withdrew an extradition bill that triggered months of often violent protests so the Chinese-ruled city can move forward from a “highly vulnerable and dangerous” place and find solutions.
Her televised announcement came after Reuters reports on Friday and Monday revealing Beijing thwarted an earlier proposal from Lam to withdraw the bill and she had said privately that she would resign if she could.
“Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law,” a sombre Lam said as she sat wearing a navy blue jacket and pink shirt with her hands folded on a desk.
It was not clear when the recording was made. The withdrawal needs the approval of the Legislative Council, which is not expected to oppose Lam.
The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China where courts are controlled by the Communist Party. Its withdrawal is a key demand of protesters but just one of five. The move came after pitched battles across the former British colony of 7 million. More than 1,000 protesters were arrested.
Many are furious about perceived police brutality and the number of arrests and want an independent inquiry.
“The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns,” Lam said.
“I pledge that the government will seriously follow up the recommendations of the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Council) report. From this month, I and my principal officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue ... we must find ways to address the discontent in society and look for solutions.”
The protests began in March but snowballed in June and have evolved into a push for greater democracy for the city which returned to China in 1997. It was not clear if killing the bill would help end the unrest. The immediate reaction appeared sceptical.
Some lawmakers said the move should have come earlier.
“The damage has been done. The scars and wounds are still bleeding,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo. “She thinks she can use a garden hose to put out a hill fire. That’s not going to be acceptable.”
Many people on street corners after nightfall were shouting: “Five demands, not one missing.”
“We still have four other demands. We hope people won’t forget that,” said a woman speaking for the protest movement who declined to identify herself except by the surname Chan. “The mobilisation power won’t decrease.”
Riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray on Tuesday to clear demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one man taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.
The four other demands are: retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies, release of all demonstrators, an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.
“Too little, too late,” Joshua Wong, a leader of pro-democracy protests in 2014 that were the precursor to the current unrest, said on his Facebook page.
In the United States, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a persistent critic of what he sees as Beijing’s attempts to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, called Lam’s move “welcome but insufficient.”
“The Chinese Communist Party should uphold its commitments to Hong Kong’s autonomy and stop aggravating the situation with threats of violence,” he said in a statement.
U.S. Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi called the move long overdue and demanded an end to the use of force against demonstrators. Pelosi said she looked forward to the swift advance of bipartisan legislation to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Rubio has co-sponsored a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that would require annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy to justify special treatment the territory enjoys under U.S. law.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Rubio said the United States and the rest of the world needed to make clear to China that aggression towards Hong Kong risked “swift, severe and lasting consequences.”
He said the U.S. administration should make clear it could respond “flexibly and robustly,” including with sanctions against the police force and individuals responsible for abuses. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a voice recording obtained by Reuters, Lam said at a meeting last week that her room to find a political solution to the crisis was “very limited”, as authorities in Beijing now viewed the situation as a matter of national security.
The protests are the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule since he took power in 2012. Beijing denies meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs, yet it warned again on Tuesday that it would act if protests threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Cheung Kwok-kwan said Lam’s announcement was not a compromise to appease those promoting violence but a bid to win over moderates in the protest camp.
“It was likely speaking to the so-called peaceful, rational, non-violent people who were dissatisfied with the government’s response before,” he said.
The chief executive’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill’s withdrawal.
Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index .HSI jumped after the report of the bill's imminent withdrawal, trading up about 4%. The property index also jumped.
Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allowed it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, like the freedom to protest and an independent legal system, hence the anger at the extradition bill and perceived creeping influence by Beijing.
Beijing has regularly warned about the impact on Hong Kong’s economy.
Cathay Pacific Airways (0293.HK) has been one of the biggest corporate casualties.
China’s aviation regulator demanded Cathay suspend staff from flying over its airspace if they were involved in, or supported, the demonstrations and the airline has laid off at least 20 personnel, including pilots and cabin crew.
On Wednesday it announced the resignation of chairman John Slosar following the departure of CEO Rupert Hogg last month.
Reporting by Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Joe Brock, Nick Macfie and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Gregorio