Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam issued a public apology Tuesday amid a spiraling political crisis, stopping far short of demands from demonstrators that she completely cancel a controversial extradition bill, exonerate protesters, and resign from her post as the city’s chief executive.
The former British colony, now a semi-autonomous region of China, has been rocked by a week of massive protests as millions of people took to the streets to oppose the bill, which for the first time would allow criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial. Critics accuse Lam of being a “puppet” of Beijing, which they say is steadily chipping away at the city’s freedoms.
“I have heard you loud and clear and have reflected deeply on all that has transpired,” Lam said at a press conference. She said government “deficiencies” were responsible for unrest in recent months, and that she herself was largely to blame. “For this, I offer my most sincere apology to all the people in Hong Kong.”
Lam’s apology did not appease the demonstrators, who want her to completely scrap the bill and step down. They also demand that protesters arrested during the demonstrations be released, all charges dropped, and accountability pursued for officers who used force.
“She was basically asking for pity—she didn’t change her position at all,” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy coalition that organized the protests. Speaking to reporters shortly after Lam’s address, he said the demonstrations will not cease and further actions are being considered.
An earlier demand that police retract their designation of a June 12 protest as a “riot” was met late Monday. Local media also reported late Tuesday night local time that 8 arrested protesters were released without charge.
At a tense meeting of the legislature Wednesday, unsatisfied democratic lawmakers held up photos of protesters injured by rubber bullets and called on the Security for Secretary, John Lee, to resign.
A notice circulating on the Telegram instant messaging app, which is heavily used by Hong Kong protesters, is calling for further action on Friday morning if Lam has not complied with all demands by Thursday night. The Hong Kong Federation of Students also called on citizens to initiate civil disobedience on Friday if the demands were not met.
Organizers said some 1.03 million people joined an initial march on June 9, while a protest the following Wednesday numbered in the tens of thousands and ended in violence that left more than 80 people injured as police used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
Lam announced Saturday that the legislation would be suspended but not fully withdrawn, further angering her detractors a day before another massive march was planned. That same evening, a man plunged to his death from scaffolding outside a shopping mall after hanging a protest banner from its side.
The man, a 35-year-old surnamed Leung, was immediately hailed as a martyr and his death brought even bigger crowds to the streets to mourn his passing.
Organizers said more than 2 million people (out of a total population of 7 million) joined Sunday’s march, and that more than a million participated in the one held only a week before. The two marches are a dramatic repudiation of Beijing and are being described, in proportional terms, as among the largest demonstrations ever held anywhere.
Many lawmakers at Wednesday’s meeting of the legislature wore black shirts and white ribbons in leung’s memory. Several also had white flowers at their seats.
Adding fuel to the protest movement, activist Joshua Wong was released early from prison Monday after serving part of a sentence related to the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests he led in 2014. Wong, now 22, walked out of prison with a stack of books, spoke with the media, ate breakfast, and then immediately joined the protests.
Speaking at a rally in front of the Hong Kong legislature just after he was freed, Wong joined the calls for Lam to step down, proclaiming: “Now is the time for me to join this fight.”
Wong held a press conference Tuesday night in response to Lam’s address. “I never imagined when I was in prison that so many people would take to the streets,” he said. “Her apology is not genuine… the only way [forward] is for Carrie Lam to step down.”
—With reporting by Hillary Leung and Natale Ching / Hong Kong