After 13 weeks of protest and political crisis, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally uttered the word protesters had been demanding all summer: “Withdraw.”
In a surprise turnaround from previous statements, Lam announced a formal withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill that sparked massive demonstrations. She made the announcement in a pre-recorded television broadcast just before 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“The government will fully withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns,” she said.
Lam also said she would add two members to an appointed council investigating police actions, to start “direct dialogue” with Hong Kong society, and invite academics, professionals and community leaders to study social issues and make recommendations to the government.
The council she mentioned has been criticized as not being truly independent because it is appointed by the government. Lam did not agree to demands for a separate, judge-led inquiry into police violence.
The withdrawal marks Hong Kong and the central Chinese government’s first concession to protesters’ five key demands: withdrawal of the bill, independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters, dropping characterization of the protests as “riots,” and universal suffrage.
But the concession may be too little, too late.
Millions of Hong Kongers marched in June against the bill, which would have allowed deportation of people to China for trial, in fear that it would harm Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom of speech.
Lam suspended the bill and later said it was “dead” but did not withdraw it, which critics said left open a legal possibility of reviving the bill.
Since then, the anti-extradition-bill protests have morphed into a firestorm of increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police, and the bill has become a symbol for Beijing’s unwanted encroachment on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.
Protesters’ anger has also flared against Hong Kong’s police, which once called themselves “Asia’s finest” but are now seen as collaborators with organized criminal gangs and perpetrators of violence against civilians. Top police officials have pushed back on those claims, denying any allegations of collaboration with the “triads” or gangs or use of excessive force.
More than a thousand protesters have been arrested as Beijing officials accuse the protesters of “terrorism” and claim without evidence that the United States is behind the unrest.
The withdrawal may be an attempt to quell protests as Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, draws closer. Beijing is planning a military parade and national celebration on that day, which Chinese leader Xi Jinping is loath to see marred by political unrest.
Analysts say Beijing will find a way to repress protests by that deadline, though Lam said in a leaked audio recording reported by Reuters that there is no such deadline and that Beijing has no plans to deploy the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong. China maintains a small military garrison in Hong Kong.
The Hang Seng Index, a measure of Hong Kong’s stock market performance, shot up almost 4% early Wednesday afternoon as rumors Lam might withdraw the bill broke out.
Online, many protesters shared an image from “Winter on Fire,” a documentary about the Ukrainian protests of 2013-14 that has been popular in Hong Kong recently, showing a man speaking with Chinese captions: “If we accepted the government’s conditions, our friends who’ve already died would not forgive us.”
Others posted images of a man in a yellow rain jacket standing on top of a mall: He became the first of at least six people who’ve died of suicide in the last three months, leaving anti-extradition-bill messages behind.
Protesters also filled online forums with a slogan often chanted at demonstrations: “Five key demands, not one less.”
Student activist Joshua Wong, who is out on bail after being arrested last week because of involvement in protests, wrote on Twitter that people would not believe the concession was sincere.
“Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights,” Wong wrote. “They have conceded nothing in fact, and a full-scale clampdown is on the way.”
Agnes Chow, another recently arrested student activist, wrote on Facebook: “Do not forget the companions we lost, do not forget our comrades who were injured. If we give up, Hong Kong will die.”
Pro-democracy legislator Eddie Chu wrote on Facebook: “We will change our slogan to ‘Four key demands, we will accept nothing less.’ “
Government supporters seemed dissatisfied as well. They left more than 1,500 comments on the Facebook page of HKG Pao, a pro-government online news outlet, many criticizing Lam for being “too soft” and a “failure and disappointment.”
Pro-Beijing lawmakers said at a news conference after the announcement that they supported the withdrawal, though it was a late step in resolving the crisis.
“The crisis has been going on for months now and is no longer purely about the bill. It’s already quite late for these measures,” said Starry Lee, chairperson of the pro-Beijing DAB party.
The size of crowds at upcoming protests will indicate whether Lam’s concession is successful.
Protesters have called for a demonstration at the U.S. consulate Saturday to support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a proposed bill that would strengthen U.S. backing for democratization and human rights in Hong Kong.
The Civil Human Rights Front, organizers of previous mass marches against the extradition bill, said that the protest movement would not end.
“After all these months, the cold-blooded heartlessness of authoritarian, violent governance has strengthened our resolve to fight for real universal suffrage. We will continue to struggle until the five core demands are wholly fulfilled!” they said.
Two masked protesters, part of a group called the Citizens’ Press Conference, gave a briefing at the legislative council complex later Wednesday night, saying the “partial victory” was not enough.
“Applying a Band-Aid months later on to rotting flesh simply will not cut it,” said one of the speakers who gave her name only as Ms. Chen. “We are one demand down and we have four to go. We will not settle for less.”