The decision to meet one of the protesters’ key demands marked a dramatic U-turn for Lam, who for months refused to fully withdraw the bill allowing extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China.
Lam suspended the bill in June after more than 1 million people marched against it, with protesters surrounding the city’s legislature on the day of its planned second reading.
That suspension did not satisfy protesters, who demanded the the bill’s complete withdrawal — making it harder for the government to rush the law through at a later date. A withdrawn bill would need to go back to the beginning of the legislative process, whereas a suspended one could resume where it left off.
In a televised address Wednesday, Lam said the government would “formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns.”
“After more than two months of social unrest it is obvious to many that discontentment extends far beyond the bill. It covers political, economic and social issues,” she said.
However pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien said: “I believe the withdrawal of the bill … may be too late because this movement has become more than the bill.”
Indeed, this is now just one of the protesters’ five key demands. They are also calling for an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality, as well as greater democracy and political reform.
Anger had been growing among many protesters — whose tactics have become increasingly violent in recent weeks — as the government repeatedly refused to consider their demands.
Withdrawal of the bill is “too little, too late for Hong Kong,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“There is no going back. If this came earlier then it may have made a difference to public sentiment, but as it currently stands, I think it will have minimal effects on public sentiments and how they view her government and her political masters in Beijing,” Ni said in an email.
Activist Joshua Wong, who was last week arrested in a police sweep of activists and opposition politicians, wrote on Twitter: “Carrie Lam’s repeated failure in understanding the situation has made this announcement completely out of touch – She needs to address to ALL Five Demands: STOP PROSECUTION, STOP CALLING US RIOTERS, INDEPENDENT INQUIRY OF POLICE and FREE ELECTION!”
Lam not resigning
Earlier this week, Lam denied she had offered to resign over her handling of the crisis, after a recording published Monday night of her at a meeting with business leaders was leaked to Reuters. On the tape, she can be heard saying she would have quit “if I have a choice.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Lam said she had not “contemplated to discuss a resignation” with her mainland superiors.
In the recording, Lam can be heard saying the bill was “not something instructed, coerced by the central government.”
“If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology,” she said. “We were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp (the) huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China.”
“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” Lam added.
Lam may be hoping that the move will put a lid on the protests ahead of October 1, when China will celebrate National Day and mark 70 years of the People’s Republic.
But whether this will be the case remains highly uncertain.
“The nature of the protest movement has transformed over the last 13 weeks,” Ni said.
“She will have to take further steps, such as setting up an independent inquiry into police conduct. If she does not take further steps, then we can expect the protests to continue.”