Hong Kong’s embattled top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has stuck to her approach to ending Hong Kong’s political crisis, despite the poor reception shown to her announcement yesterday that she was formally withdrawing a divisive extradition bill.
Appearing stiff and formal at a press conference Thursday morning, Lam largely repeated the plan outlined a day before, when she said that aside from withdrawing the bill she would support the work of the territory’s Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) in looking into allegations of police brutality, as well as “start a direct dialogue” with “people from all walks of life,” inviting “community leaders, professionals and academics to advise the government” on policy.
“After more than two months of social unrest,” she said, “it is obvious to many of us that discontent in society extends far beyond the bill—to housing and land supply, income distribution, social justice and mobility, and opportunities for the young, and how the public can be fully engaged in the government’s decision making.”
But her initiatives fall far short of the key demands of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, which include universal suffrage, exoneration for the 1,140 protesters arrested so far during the unrest, and a Commission of Inquiry into how the police have handled the protests, instead of referring the matter to the IPCC, which protesters say is dominated by pro-establishment figures. The IPCC also lacks the legal power to summon witnesses.
Speaking to TIME after Lam’s press conference, prominent campaigner Joshua Wong said “The cause of Hong Kong people to get free elections will never stop” and added that the Hong Kong government would “never” be “the decision maker” when it came to initiating dialogue.
Willy Lam (no relation), adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, told TIME that “The possibility of a dialogue happening is very low indeed. Most of the protesters, particularly the radical fringe, consist of university and high school students and this group has made it known they have no interest in speaking to Carrie Lam.”
He added: “If she had made the announcement [of the bill’s withdrawal] say two months ago, it would have helped to appease the public, but now the goalposts have moved, and the public is demanding some concrete, democratic development.”
Conservative politician Michael Tien said that the bill’s withdrawal “may not be able to put the unrest away, to a level under control.” He told TIME: “I think they need to think about the issue of the Commission of Inquiry. In the last two months, things have taken a turn. The priority of the Commission of Inquiry is higher.”
Democratic legislator Au Nok-hin agreed. “I think an independent investigative body [into the police] and the nomination of a neutral person to chair such a committee would be crucial … If the police can’t be trusted, it will be very difficult for them to execute the law in the future.”
The bill that sparked the Hong Kong protests would have allowed, for the first time, the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. Critics of the measure feared that Beijing would use its provisions to round up dissidents in the semi-autonomous territory, which was retroceded to China in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony. Opposition to the bill quickly escalated into a campaign for full political freedom for Hong Kong, whose 7.2 million inhabitants are linguistically and culturally distinct from mainland Chinese.
Lam’s withdrawal of the bill yesterday was intended as a major concession to the movement, but has instead provoked anger and scorn—uniting activists, academics and even pro-government politicians in agreement that it was insufficient.
“She finally bowed to demands by saying that she has irrevocably withdrawn the bill,” Professor Lam said, “but it was a case of too little, too late.”
The chief executive’s close aide and cabinet member, Ronny Tong, has been one of her few defenders.
“Behind the current immediate problems lie the more deep-seated discord in the community, and that discord has got to be dealt with by livelihood issues,” he told TIME. “Carrie Lam is a good administrator in relation to solving such deep-seated livelihood issues, and in these first two years she’s dealt with them in ways that people tend to agree with.”
Pro-establishment politician Regina Ip also sounded a positive note.
“We do not expect one concession to placate all the protestors,” she said. “But at least this move demonstrates that the government has been listening.”
But pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo summed up the fury of many in Hong Kong, when she told TIME that Hong Kong’s beleaguered leader was “an incurable tinpot dictator, using rule by law, rule by decree to clamp down on our young protesters.”
The atmosphere in the enclave remains tense. Hongkongers woke Thursday morning to the news that the home of pro-democracy tycoon Jimmy Lai had been attacked with petrol bombs, and that Chinese president Xi Jinping had singled out Hong Kong, the neighboring territory of Macau, and the self-governing island of Taiwan (which China considers a renegade province) as major risks that the Communist Party must “struggle against.”
Hardline activists in Hong Kong have also vowed to escalate their campaign if their demands are not met by Sept. 13.
—With reporting by Amy Gunia and Hillary Leung / Hong Kong