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Hong Kong’s Embattled Leader Appeals for Calm in the Wake of Violent Anti-Government Protests

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Hong Kong was struggling to come to terms this morning with the violent ransacking of the legislature on July 1—the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony’s retrocession to China.

On Monday night, hundreds of anti-China rioters battered their way through glass doors and steel shutters and ran rampant through the Legislative Council, locally referred to as LegCo. They smashed fixtures, spray-painted the walls with slogans and destroyed portraits of unpopular leaders, before breaching the debating chamber and draping the colonial flag across the president’s desk.

Government-run media reported Tuesday that the legislature’s president had canceled all sessions for the next two weeks, effectively beginning the body’s summer recess. Authorities meanwhile pledged to bring rioters to justice, with police cordoning off the wrecked building and declaring it a crime scene.

Looking tired and subdued, Hong Kong’s embattled top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, called a press conference at 4:00 a.m. local time, three hours after police reoccupied the legislature, and deplored “the extreme use of violence and vandalism by protesters.”

She added that “nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong” and hoped “society will return to normal as soon as possible.”

Police Commissioner Stephen Lo appeared with Lam and, speaking in Cantonese, said: “The violent acts by the protesters have crossed a bottom line. Hong Kong is a peaceful society. I believe a lot of Hongkongers are saddened by the protesters’ violent actions.”

Lam meanwhile defended her handling of the escalating political crisis that has its origins in the government’s attempt to make it possible for fugitives to be extradited to the mainland. This does not happen at present, because even though Hong Kong is considered part of China, it is a semi-autonomous territory with a separate legal system and no extradition agreement with Beijing.

Read more: A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong

The government says such an agreement is necessary to stop the former British colony from becoming a sanctuary for mainland criminals. It has also excluded political offenses from any potential pact. But many in this semi-autonomous enclave believe an extradition arrangement will simply be used to round up dissidents and activists on spurious criminal charges, such is the mistrust of the mainland.

The massive marches and other demonstrations that rocked Hong Kong during the past three weeks prompted Lam to suspend a legislative amendment that would have paved the way for extradition to go ahead.

“If the cause of the social tensions that we have seen is a bill to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, on June 15 I have announced the suspension of the bill,” she emphasized this morning.

“Subsequently we have explained and elaborated that by suspending the bill at this point in time with no timetable and no plan to resume the debate of the bill in the Legislative Council, the bill will expire, or the bill will die, in July 2020 when the current LegCo term expires. That is a very positive response to the demands that we have heard.”

Many ordinary Hongkongers are unhappy with the passive proposal to let the bill lapse, however, and demand its formal withdrawal along with Lam’s resignation. Their aspirations have also broadened into a desire for genuine democracy. Lam, like all of Hong Kong’s leaders since Britain’s withdrawal, was selected by a small electoral college largely drawn from the ranks of the pro-China elite and is seen as Beijing’s proxy.

Some protesters are calling for freedom from China itself. The slogan “Hong Kong Is Not China” is frequently seen at protests and was spray-painted across a pillar during last night’s storming of the legislature.

Reasserting her ability to govern in the wake of the protests, and containing a small but tenacious and growing movement for self-determination, will pose enormous challenges to Lam in the months ahead. She insists that the issues will be resolved not by protests but by rule of law.

“The rule of law is exactly what I have been talking tonight,” she said. “I hope we all agree that this is something of paramount importance to Hong Kong and will continue to guide the Government’s reactions and responses to social issues and to the demands and aspirations of our people.”

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