Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she’s committed to completing her term despite massive protests calling for her resignation – but she apologized for stoking anxiety and conflict with an unpopular legislative plan that would allow criminal extraditions to mainland China.
Lam, the territory’s chief executive, spoke during a televised press conference in her first direct comments since the weekend’s massive protests which saw hundreds of thousands demand she quit and completely withdraw the proposed bill.
Lam had raised tensions on Saturday when she announced that she would indefinitely suspend the extradition plan, but would not withdraw it.
While she fell short of withdrawing the bill during Tuesday’s address, Lam said that she “will not proceed again with this legislative exercise” if her government does not adequately address the people’s concerns.
Citing the need to tackle a host of social and economic issues facing Hong Kong, Lam said that she will work to regain the confidence of its people during the rest of her term, which ends on July 1, 2022.
“So in the next three years … myself and my team, we will try our very best to rebuild that trust so that we can continue to implement these … policies,” she said.
A murder in Taiwan
The impetus for the bill is in the government’s inability to extradite a Hong Kong citizen to Taiwan even though he was accused of killing his girlfriend while they were on a visit to Taipei last year.
Lam and other officials have said the proposed legislation was necessary to close that legal “gap” in order to extradite suspects to countries and jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no such arrangements.
But the inclusion of China in the plan raised fears among citizens and businesses that they could become ensnared in its politically controlled judicial system that is criticized by international human rights groups.
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it became a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Since then, many Hong Kong citizens have openly worried that the freedoms they enjoyed under the British are slowly being eroded under Beijing.
Lam has found herself squeezed between Beijing’s desire to extend its influence over Hong Kong, and a local protest movement that has drawn very wide support.
Pressure on Lam had mounted weeks before Sunday’s demonstration that organizers said drew almost 2 million people. Police estimated there were 338,000 protesters, but said it was not a complete count.
Reiterating recent comments, Lam blamed the government’s “deficiencies” and failure to address the concerns of the people adequately.
“This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society,” she said. “For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, a leading business group that has expressed understanding of the need for the legislation but also sought stronger safeguards in it, welcomed Lam’s comments and called for the city to move on.
“The chief executive has made a formal apology over the incident,” Aron Harilela, the chamber’s chairman, said in a statement. “We hope that this will draw a line under this unfortunate episode, and that life in Hong Kong returns to normal as soon as possible.”
Lam did not give a timeline on when the suspended legislation might be relaunched during her Tuesday address, but strongly suggested that prospects are bleak.
She said the government will continue to try and win understanding for it – but if it can’t, then the bill will be allowed to die.
“I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties could not be adequately addressed,” she said.
Lam stressed that the current term of the Legislative Council – the local legislature – ends in July next year and under its rules the bill will expire if it’s not reintroduced by then.
“It will no longer have a validity,” she pointed out. “And the government will accept that reality.”
Lam tried to assuage anger late Sunday with an apology issued through a government spokesman in a written statement. But that only intensified opposition anger. Protest organizers called it a “total insult.”
– CNBC’s Ted Kemp, Vivian Kam and Yolande Chee contributed to this report.