HONG KONG — Earlier this summer, a bill allowing extradition to mainland China set off massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, which have continued to rack the city every weekend since June. On Wednesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she would formally withdraw the bill — but many are already rejecting her concessions as too little and too late. Withdrawing the bill is just one of five protester demands amid a deepening political crisis.

Lam had already suspended work on the bill in June, but a day later, about 2 million more people took to the streets, the first clear indication that it was an insufficient step. Lam then labeled it “dead,” but the protests continued, growing in intensity, scale and scope. Protesters had insisted that she fully withdraw it from the legislative agenda, which requires a formal process.

After meeting with her cabinet, pro-Beijing lawmakers and others in the government, Lam said in a televised address that incidents in recent months have “shocked and saddened people.”

“We should all think deeply whether escalating violence and disturbances is the answer,” she said in the speech, before announcing four steps that she would take to kick-start a dialogue with the public, notably a full withdrawal of the extradition bill.

Her other steps included beefing up Hong Kong’s independent police watchdog, known as the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), and ordering it to look into the force’s handling of protests and organized crime-linked attacks against protesters in July.

Lam said she would also reach out to the community to start a “direct dialogue” with people and task experts including academics to independently “examine and review society’s deep-seated problems and to advise the government on finding solutions.”

Lam stopped short of announcing a fully independent investigation into the crisis, including the police response and use of force.

Protesters’ reactions

Initial reactions by protesters suggest that these steps, too, will be insufficient to calm the unrest.

Crucially, protesters deeply distrust the IPCC, which is headed by the former chairman of the city’s Securities and Futures Commission, Anthony Francis Neoh, who was appointed to the top position by Lam in 2018. Protesters believe that the body, which monitors and reviews complaints against members of the Hong Kong police, is stacked with Lam loyalists and cannot be impartial.

It was the possibility of being extradited to face the justice system in mainland China that sparked the demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Since June, however, the demonstrations — which have at times turned violent and provoked an increasingly harsh police response — have moved beyond just the bill. Protesters have settled on five demands, among them universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leaders and an investigation into the crisis including the police response over the past three months.

Protesters gather during a pro-democracy rally in Tamar Park, Hong Kong, on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. (Vincent Yu/AP)
Protesters gather during a pro-democracy rally in Tamar Park, Hong Kong, on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Until now, Lam had rejected all the protester’s demands. Many believe that meeting two in particular — fully withdrawing the bill and opening an independent inquiry into the crisis — would be the easiest way in the short term to address the anger on the streets.

Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who also serves as a Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress in China, said resistance to concessions has come in part from Beijing.

They are concerned “it will send a signal to everybody in Hong Kong that the baby who cries the most will get the milk.”

He added that while fully withdrawing the bill was the “right thing” to do, it was likely too late to have an impact. Among pro-government politicians, he has been the strongest advocate for a fully independent investigation of the police.

“The focus since the beginning of July has completely shifted now to the confrontation between police and rioters, and how the public perceives it,” he said.

“The public is totally polarized, but it is no longer about the extradition bill.”

Lam, however, has so far resisted, fearing a negative response from the police force.

A brief history of Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong returned to Beijing’s control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that allowed the city to maintain its own internal governing rules.

Political crises have erupted periodically in the semiautonomous territory, however, over fears that the Chinese government is seeking to exercise greater control, most recently in 2014 when Beijing rejected full universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

Protests have taken on an increasingly anti-Chinese flavor — the national emblem has been defaced, the Chinese flag flung into Victoria Harbor and other symbols of Beijing’s control have been targeted.

Chinese authorities have threatened the use of military force in Hong Kong, and have hoped that protests peter out before Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Demonstrations are planned in Hong Kong to mark the day.

On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app used by protesters to help organize demonstrations, Lam’s decision was met with resistance. In protest-related channels, users circulated the slogan, “Five demands, not one less.” Others forwarded a quote from “Winter on Fire,” a documentary film about Ukraine's 2014 anti-government protests: “If we accept the government's demands, those who have died will not forgive us.”

Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the centrist political group Third Side, who met with Lam last month during a listening session with moderate politicians, is among those who back the independent inquiry. Her concessions, he said, were insufficient and the government needs to offer “something more.”

Tien, the pro-Beijing lawmaker, added that if grievances between the police and the public are not addressed, “people are going to be carrying around this hatred for many years.”

Hong Kong stocks surged on the reports that the bill would be formally withdrawn, leaping more than 3 percent on Wednesday afternoon.

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