Cracks appeared to emerge on Friday in the support base for a proposed Hong Kong law that would allow extraditions to China as opponents of the bill vowed further demonstrations after hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week.
The extradition bill, which would cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling in the city, has many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.
Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered the former British colony’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one-country, two-systems” deal guaranteeing it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
Many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Executive council member Bernard Chan, one of the key advisers to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, told Cable TV on Friday that he did not think formal discussion of the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the legislature, should continue at present given the opposition.
“Do we consult, strengthen the bill or what? Is there still any chance of the bill passing? These are all factors the government must consider,” he said.
“But I definitely say that right now it’s not possible — at a time when there are such intense divisions — to keep discussing this issue. The difficulty is very high.”
Calls for a ‘cool-down period’
Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, urged the city government to put the bill on hold.
Twenty-two former government officials or Legislative Council members, including former security secretary Peter Lai Hing-ling, signed a statement calling on Lam to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the bill for more thorough deliberation.”
“It is time for Hong Kong to have a cool-down period, Lai told Reuters. “Let frayed tempers settle before we resume discussion of this controversial issue. Please, no more bloodletting.”
The proposed bill has thrown Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, into chaos, starting on Sunday with a march against the extradition bill that drew what organizers said was more than a million people.
Tens of thousands demonstrated in the following days. On Wednesday, protesters surrounded the legislature and swarmed on to a major highway, before being forced back by riot police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Watch Hong Kong police fire tear gas at protesters:
Beijing-backed Lam has stood by the bill, saying it is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said Hong Kong courts would safeguard human rights.
Courts in mainland China are controlled by the Communist Party.
China has rejected accusations of undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. State media said this week that “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos. The Foreign Ministry said on Friday that plots to bring chaos in Hong Kong would not succeed.
Lam has not appeared in public or commented since Wednesday.
More demonstrations planned
On Friday, police kept a close watch as the city returned to normalcy, with most protesters retreating and banks reopening. A few dozen demonstrators clustered on Friday near the legislature, which had been scheduled to debate the bill this week.
More than 1,000 people joined a peaceful “mother’s protest” Friday evening (local time) in a downtown garden. Speakers at the rally called for Lam to step down.
Authorities are bracing for more protests over the weekend.
Organizers have urged people to take to the streets on Sunday and protesters have applied for a permit to gather on Monday, when legislators may reconvene to discuss the bill. The Confederation of Trade Unions and Professional Teachers Union called for a citywide strike.
“We are going to be here fixed today to show people that we are here to support. Everyone is planning for a big march on Sunday like last week but no one knows what will happen at night or after,” said a woman surnamed Chan, who was helping at a makeshift first aid and supply station.
Police have made more than a dozen arrests, some in hospitals and university campuses, while over 81 people were wounded in the clashes.
Lam declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting,” potentially raising severe legal penalties for those arrested for taking part. In past cases of unrest, the authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders. In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
Hong Kong residents enjoy liberties denied to Chinese living in the mainland. June 4 brought one of the biggest vigils in recent years to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protests in Beijing.
But many in the city worry their freedoms have been diminishing since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified concern over the territory weakening legal autonomy. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is under investigation for allegedly leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.