Government may pause Hong Kong extradition bill in face of more mass protests

Tony Cheung
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Government may pause Hong Kong extradition bill in face of more mass protests

Hong Kong’s embattled government was working to defuse the crisis over its controversial extradition bill with a possible pause for further discussion, sources told the South China Morning Post on Friday, with the clock ticking towards another showdown with protesters planning a mass rally on Sunday.

Several heavyweight advisers to the city’s leader suggested there was no need for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to meet a self-imposed July deadline to have the bill passed.

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But divisions emerged within the Executive Council, with others suggesting she should stick to her guns and continue to fast-track it through the legislature.

Exco convenor Bernard Chan said it would be impossible to rush through the amended legislation, which would allow the transfer of fugitives from Hong Kong to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which the city has no extradition treaty, while fellow advisers Dr Lam Ching-choi and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun both advocated taking a step back.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a vocal supporter of the bill in Exco, said he would not object to a deferral and called for talks to find a middle-ground solution.

But his colleague and former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee insisted the government should push ahead with the bill.

They were among a chorus of voices on Friday advising Lam on her next course of action, just two days after she insisted the bill was justified and must be put before the Legislative Council as a matter of urgency.

Momentum against the bill intensified as more than 20 retired lawmakers and prominent officials, including former security chief Peter Lai Hing-ling, issued an urgent appeal for Lam to withdraw the bill.

Lam was silent on Friday, but her deputy, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, told the Post: “I will continue to put in my utmost to protect and preserve our core values as well as allaying public concerns over this thorny issue.”

Adding to speculation about a possible compromise offer, a pro-Beijing alliance claiming to have collected more than 930,000 signatures backing the bill cancelled its plan to set up street booths to sign up more supporters on Sunday.

The group said it did not want confrontations with opponents of the bill at the next mass rally they were planning for the same day.

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Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen had previously allocated 61 hours, starting on Wednesday, for scrutiny of the bill before putting it to a vote, but tens of thousands of protesters surrounding the legislative compound prevented it.

The Legco debate is in limbo after violent clashes that day between protesters and police, who used tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to disperse them.

More than 80 people were injured, and 11 were arrested on charges relating to rioting.

Bernard Chan advised the government on Friday to re-evaluate the situation in light of the violence and widespread public backlash.

“I think it is impossible to discuss [the bill] under such confrontation. It would be very difficult,” Chan said. “At the very least we should not escalate the antagonism.”

Lam Ching-choi, also chairman of the Elderly Commission, suggested there should be some flexibility in the government’s position.

“The government will consider every option. The government is not intransigent, and like others, it is also flesh and blood, and feels the public sentiment,” he said.

Fanny Law said she supported the bill and accepted the collective responsibility of trying to pass it before the Legco summer recess, but was also open to delaying it.

“In light of the violent protests and strong reactions from the community, if the chief executive now decides to allow more time for discussion and to provide more safeguards to assure fair trials [when fugitives are transferred from Hong Kong], I’ll support that,” Law said.

“But the bill should not be dropped altogether.”

Ronny Tong agreed the government should “leave all options open”, including delaying the bill until Legco ended its summer recess in October, and negotiate with the opposition to see whether concessions could be made.

“If we are shelving it, we need to have some other proposals so the problems can be resolved … This must not be a zero-sum game,” he said.

Executive councillor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, who also chairs the University of Hong Kong’s governing council, would not be drawn into whether the government should have done better in consulting the public about the bill.

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His Exco colleague and business sector lawmaker Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung would not say whether the bill should be postponed, but he criticised the government for not doing enough to explain the legislation to the business community and general public.

In their written appeal to the chief executive, former top officials and lawmakers urged Lam’s advisers to persuade her to scrap the bill and resign if she refused to listen.

The signatories included former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, former deputy secretary for economic services Elizabeth Bosher, former senior politician Allen Lee Peng-fei, and secretary for security Peter Lai Hing-ling.

“It is time for Hong Kong to have a cool-down period. Let frayed tempers settle before we resume discussion of this controversial issue. Please, no more bloodletting,” Lai said.

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