HONG KONG – Pressure on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam was mounting Saturday, with signs emerging that she may delay an unpopular extradition bill that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people into the streets in protest.
Reports said Lam was expected to make an announcement later Saturday. Government officials said they had not yet released plans for a news conference but indicated they might have news soon.
Another mass protest was expected Sunday, after clashes that turned violent on Wednesday, leaving about 80 people injured including 22 police officers.
The standoff between police and protesters in the former British colony is Hong Kong’s most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts, and pressure on Beijing-appointed Lam is intense.
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 Tiananmen protests in Beijing. Lam is caught between a public anxious to protect such cherished civil liberties and legal protections and her Communist Party bosses.
Opponents want her to withdraw the bill, which would allow Hong Kong suspects to be tried in mainland China. She has said she won’t, and has the backing of leaders in Beijing. Many protesters are demanding she quit.
Protests died down late in the week, but around midnight Friday there were still dozens of youths singing and standing vigil near the city’s government headquarters, where demonstrators had tussled with police who deployed tear gas, pepper spray, hoses and steel batons as thousands pushed through barricades.
Police said 11 were arrested. Lam declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting,” potentially raising severe legal penalties for those arrested for taking part. In past cases of unrest, 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.
Lam was facing calls from both outside and within her government to delay the extradition legislation that has spurred the protests.
Some members of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s cabinet, said she should perhaps rethink plans to rush the bills’ passage. A group of former senior government officials issued a public letter urging her not to force a confrontation by pushing ahead with the unpopular bills.
“It can be said the government perhaps should consider other options,” said Bernard Chan, a leading member of the Executive Council. He said a delay might be one possibility.
One of the legislature’s pro-Beijing members, Michael Tien, said on Facebook that the bill was unneeded. “We’re the laughing stock of the world,” he said.
Many in Hong Kong fear the measures would undermine the former British colony’s legal autonomy. As of Friday afternoon, more than 30,000 people had signed a petition protesting the use of force by police during the violent clashes on Wednesday.
More than 1,000 people joined a peaceful “mother’s protest” Friday evening in a downtown garden.
Adding to tensions, the extradition bill has drawn criticism from U.S. and British lawmakers and human rights groups, prompting Beijing to lash back with warnings against “interference” in its internal affairs. China’s foreign ministry said Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Robert Forden, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, on Friday.
Le urged the U.S. to treat Hong Kong “objectively and fairly,” the ministry said in a statement. It added that “China will respond further to the U.S.’s actions.”
It is unclear how the local leadership might defuse the crisis, given Beijing’s strong support for the extradition bill and its distaste for dissent.
Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said that the Hong Kong leader very well might end up as a scapegoat, as a face-saving tactic: President Xi Jinping, China’s strongest leader in decades, has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing’s dictates, and many in Hong Kong fear their freedoms have been fading since he came to power in 2012.
He has warned the central government would not tolerate the city becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a threat to its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.
“If the momentum continues to grow, then there is a high possibility that Xi Jinping might strike for a compromise and postpone the bill indefinitely,” Willy Lam said. “There’s a possibility Beijing might strike a compromise and the blame will be put on Carrie Lam.”
Anson Chan, a former chief secretary for Hong Kong, said Lam still could keep her post if she backs down.
“What the people are attempting to tell is that we are very worried about the consequences of passing the extradition bill, because no one will feel safe, even in their own beds, after passage of this bill,” Chan said in an interview.
“It places everybody’s individual freedom and safety at risk,” said Chan, who as chief secretary was the top local civil servant under former British Gov. Chris Patton.
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