Despite softening on Hong Kong extradition bill, Lam warns authorities will 'sternly enforce the law'
Embattled leader says China 'understands, respects and supports' move to withdraw controversial bill
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says she hopes the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill will help solve the region's political crisis, but to "get out of the deadlock," it's important to stop further violence and "sternly enforce the law."
Lam spoke to reporters Thursday, a day after announcing the proposed law would be withdrawn, after massive but peaceful demonstrations began in June.
"To get out of the deadlock, the most important thing in front of us, is to stop violence, sternly enforce the law, in order to reinstall peace in Hong Kong," she said.
"But even if we don't have this environment, does it mean we [the government] won't do anything? We will still do it. But I hope to get the understanding of our fellow citizens, and believe Hong Kong citizens will support, if this kind of violence is still happening in Hong Kong every day, it really affects the normal operation of the city and also the daily lives of Hong Kong citizens."
Lam said China "understands, respects and supports" her government's move to formally withdraw the bill, part of measures she hoped would help the region "move forward" from months of unrest.
At the briefing, Lam was repeatedly questioned on why it took her so long to withdraw the bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China despite increasingly violent protests, but she skirted the questions.
Watch Lam as she makes the announcement regarding the controversial bill:
"It is not exactly correct to describe this as a change of mind," she said.
She added that this full withdrawal of the bill was a decision made by her government with Beijing's backing.
"Throughout the whole process, the Central People's Government took the position that they understood why we have to do it. They respect my view, and they support me all the way," said Lam, dressed in white and looking less tense than a televised appearance the day before.
She withdrew the bill, which has plunged the Chinese-ruled region into its worst political crisis in decades, on Wednesday.
She also announced other measures including opening a platform for dialogue with society to try to address other deep-rooted economic, social and political problems that she said were contributing to the current impasse.
"We must find ways to address the discontent in society and look for solutions," she said.
The withdrawal was one of the pro-democracy protesters' five demands, although many demonstrators and lawmakers said the move was too little, too late.
The other demands are:
- Retraction of the word "riot" to describe rallies.
- Release of all arrested demonstrators.
- An independent inquiry into perceived brutality of the police.
- The right for people in Hong Kong to democratically choose their own leaders.
The official China Daily newspaper said on Thursday that the withdrawal of the bill was an olive branch that leaves demonstrators with no excuse to continue violence.
The announcement came after Reuters reports on Friday and Monday revealed that Beijing had thwarted Lam's earlier proposals to withdraw the bill and that she had said privately that she would resign if she could, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters.
Lam leaves for China's Guangxi province on Thursday afternoon.
Region will 'bounce back'
Skirmishes broke out in some districts including Po Lam late on Wednesday after Lam's announcement, which came after a weekend of some of the most violent protests the territory has seen in the past three months.
Police said a suspected petrol bomb was hurled at a luxury property in Kowloon district in the early hours of Thursday and the suspects fled on a motorbike. Local newspaper Apple Daily said the house belonged to Jimmy Lai, the newspaper's owner, who was in the property at the time. Pro-democracy publishing tycoon Lai is an outspoken critic of Beijing.
The bill was seen as the latest example of what many residents see as ever-tighter control by Beijing, despite the promise of autonomy.
The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" administration which gave the region of more than seven million people more freedoms than mainland cities, such as an independent judiciary.
China denies meddling in Hong Kong's affairs and accuses Western countries of fuelling the protests.
Images of some of the fiercest clashes have been beamed live on television screens across the world, sending jitters across the international business community and leading to a large drop in tourism.
The Hong Kong government took out a full-page advert in the Australian Financial Review on Thursday saying it is "determined to achieve a peaceful, rational and reasonable resolution" and is resolutely committed to "one country, two systems."
It ends the advert by saying: "We will no doubt bounce back. We always do."
More than 1,100 people have been arrested since the violence escalated in June and Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade.
China has strongly denounced the violence and warned it could use force to restore order.
Priority for U.S. Senate
Legislation addressing China's actions in Hong Kong will be among the top priorities pushed by U.S. Senate Democrats when Congress returns to work after a recess next week, their leader said on Thursday.
The statement by Sen. Chuck Schumer followed similar expressions of concern by leading Senate Republicans.
The mounting Senate concern contrasts with a more "hands-off" approach to Hong Kong by U.S. President Donald Trump. Last month Trump suggested China should "humanely" settle the problem in Hong Kong before a trade deal is reached with Washington. Earlier Trump called the protests "riots" that were a matter for China to deal with.
"It's critical that we respond to the Chinese Communist Party's actions against the people of Hong Kong as they exercise their right to freedom of expression and other fundamental democratic rights," Schumer said in a statement to the Senate's minority Democrats.
The bipartisan proposal, called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, was co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, among others. It would also mandate that officials in China and Hong Kong who have undermined the region's autonomy are vulnerable to sanctions, Rubio said in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post two days ago.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this week said he would urge Trump to take "forceful action" if the Chinese government uses violence to put down the protests in Hong Kong. In an interview with the Hugh Hewitt radio show, McConnell also said he would support legislation to enhance the Hong Kong Policy Act, which he authored in 1992, but did not give details.
With files from The Associated Press