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Hong Kong leader apologises for extradition crisis but refuses to step down

Tyrone Siu, Reuters | Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China, June 18, 2019.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam apologised Tuesday for the political unrest that has shaken Hong Kong, but the pro-Beijing chief executive refused to bow to demands for her resignation.

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The semi-autonomous territory has been plunged into its biggest crisis in decades, with millions of people taking to the streets to demand the withdrawal of proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

Lam suspended the bill on Saturday after two massive rallies that saw isolated bouts of violence between the police and some protesters.

But that failed to quell public anger, and an even bigger rally Sunday drew over two million people, organisers said -- more than a quarter of the population.

"I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society," Lam told a press conference.

"For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong."

Activists have demanded the bill be withdrawn fully, for Lam to step down, and for police to be investigated for using tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters.

They have also asked for all charges to be dropped against anyone detained during the protests.

Carrie Lam: A Portrait

But Lam gave no indication she was prepared to step down, saying instead she wanted to "continue to work very hard... to meet the aspirations of the Hong Kong people".

Lam tacitly suggested, however, that the extradition bill was unlikely to be revived given the public sentiment.

"I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties could not be adequately addressed," she said.

"If the bill... (does) not make the legislative council by July next year, it will expire... and the government will accept that reality."

Public rage

Protest organisers were unmoved by Lam's latest public statement, and slammed her for failing to address their demands.

"Her attitude is arrogant," said Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella organisation of various groups participating in the protests.

Sham said organisers will now convene to decide on their next steps.

Critics of the extradition legislation fear it will entangle the people of Hong Kong in China's notoriously opaque and politicised justice system, and threaten Beijing's critics.

The city's formidable business community was also spooked about the law damaging Hong Kong's reputation as a safe business hub.

The crisis has left Lam on shaky ground, and the latest press conference will do little to ease the pressure on her, said political analyst Dixon Sing.

"It's really difficult for her to govern," said Sing. "Especially if she wants to bring in any more controversial policies that might need public support."

Lam has been criticised by opponents -- and even members of her pro-Beijing camp in the legislature -- for the handling of the protests.

Joshua Wong, a leading Hong Kong activist who became the face of the 2014 protests, predicted more demonstrations.

"If one million people come out to the street and it just results in suspension, and two million people come out and (there is) just an apology, that is not sincere at all," he said.

"How many people will come out to the streets again?"

'Mad as hell'

While the extradition issue had been the spark for the mass rallies, the protest movement has since morphed into the latest expression of public rage in Hong Kong against both the city's leaders and Beijing.

Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen in mainland China under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China.

But many residents fear that they are being slowly eroded by what they feel is Beijing's tightening grip on the semi-autonomous city.

As recent evidence, they offer the failure of the huge pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" in 2014, the imprisonment of protest leaders and disqualification of popular lawmakers, and the disappearance of booksellers critical of Beijing.

The Chinese government had supported the extradition proposal, and accused protest organisers of colluding with Western governments. It had denounced expressions of support for the Hong Kong protesters as interference in the city -- and China's -- internal affairs.

But Beijing said after the bill's suspension last week that it respected and understood the Hong Kong government's decision.

Protest leaders and Lam's opponents in the Hong Kong legislature remain wary, however.

"The people are still mad as hell," said Ray Chan, an opposition lawmaker.

(AFP)

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