Will Hong Kong leader's climbdown calm the chaos?

2019-09-05 12:55
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam waits for questions from the media at a press conference in Hong Kong. (Philip Fong, AFP)

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam waits for questions from the media at a press conference in Hong Kong. (Philip Fong, AFP)

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A surprise concession to protesters by Hong Kong's leader may have eased tensions and reduced the likelihood of China sending in troops, but it is unlikely to halt the huge rallies or end clashes.

After three months of taking a hardline tone, chief executive Carrie Lam finally scrapped a widely loathed bill on Wednesday allowing extraditions to the mainland.

But will it be enough to calm nerves and end weeks of clashes in a financial hub once renowned for stability?

Why make a concession now?

On Thursday, Lam said she had decided to fully scrap the extradition law after meeting with various groups and leaders in recent weeks.

Previously she had only agreed to suspend the legislation, fuelling further protests and sparking fears the law might one day be resurrected.

She portrayed the withdrawal as an attempt to heal divisions and start a dialogue with more moderate protesters.

But the timing was surprising.

Only a week earlier Lam had delivered a defiant press conference saying she had no intention of yielding to protester demands.

In between the two statements leaked audio recordings emerged of Lam privately telling people she wanted to quit and felt her hands were tied by Beijing.

"I think China is really trying to pacify the situation," political analyst Dixon Sing told AFP, adding that the likelihood of Beijing deploying troops was now "close to zero".

Will it end the crisis?

The initial prognosis from protesters - and even some people within Lam's political camp - is that the concession was too little, too late, given more than 1 000 people have been arrested, with injuries on both sides in clashes with police and huge polarisation within the city.

"If she did it two months ago, then there wouldn't be the current situation," Felix Chung, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who was among more than 40 people to meet with Lam on Wednesday before the announcement, told AFP.

On the protest side, rejection has come in from both moderates and more radical groups.

"Applying a band-aid months later on to rotting flesh will simply not cut it," said one masked protester at a so-called "citizens press conference" late on Wednesday.

Protesters say their movement will only end when all five of their demands are met.

What are the remaining demands?

An inquiry into police conduct, an amnesty for anyone arrested, a retraction of the label "rioters" to describe protesters and universal suffrage.

Lam has said the current police complaints mechanism - which critics say is stacked with Beijing loyalists - is adequate and says an amnesty or withdrawal of rioting charges - which carry up to 10 years jail - would undermine Hong Kong's independent legal system.

Universal suffrage has long been a thorny issue in a city where the leader is currently chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

In 2014 Beijing said it would be willing to give one person, one vote but said people would only be allowed to choose from a small number of pre-vetted candidates.

That decision sparked huge pro-democracy protests that year which failed to make any headway.

Beijing has repeatedly portrayed demands for direct elections as an unacceptable red line.

What has been Beijing's response to Lam's concession?

So far party organs have been silent. But Chinese state media has welcomed it.

In an editorial headlined "HK protesters now have no excuse to continue violence" the China Daily described the move as an "olive branch" and called for dialogue with moderates.

On Twitter - which is banned in China - the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid Hu Xijian wrote: "I hope this will be a new starting point. I also call on Western media and politicians to support a turnaround in the situation of Hong Kong."

Lam has insisted the decision to withdraw the bill was hers alone and that no orders were given by China, although she said the central government supported her move.

What next?

More protests. Message forums used by protesters have filled with criticism and calls for new protests, including an attempted blockade of the airport on Saturday.

There are also plans to get out huge crowds on October 1 when the People's Republic of China celebrates the 70th anniversary of its founding.

Analyst Sing said only further concessions - particularly an independent inquiry - were likely to halt protests.

"What remains is a tug of war over the next few months over whether an independent commission should be set up," he said, describing that demand as the one which has "gained the greatest support among the public".

Read more on:    hong kong
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