16 Jun 2019

Hong Kong backtracks on extradition bill after huge protests

7:08 am on 16 June 2019

The Hong Kong government has suspended its highly controversial plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, chief executive Carrie Lam has announced.

A banner targeting Chinese leadership in protests against a proposed amendment to extradition laws in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

There have been days of mass protests in Hong Kong culminating in a decision to suspend a bill aimed at allowing extraditions to mainland China. Photo: AP Photo / Vincent Yu

In one of the most significant climbdowns by the government since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the city's chief executive Carrie Lam said the legislature would stop all work on the bill.

She said the next steps would be decided after consultations with various parties. She had previously refused to scrap the bill despite mass protests from Hong Kong residents.

"The bill has caused a lot of division in society," she told a press conference, referring to "doubts and misunderstanding".

She said she had heard the calls for her government to "pause and think".

"I have to admit in terms of explanation and communication, there were inadequacies," she said.

"We have to bear in mind the greatest interests of Hong Kong," she added - which involved "restoring peace and order".

The government had argued the proposed extradition bill would "plug the loopholes" so that the city would not be a safe haven for criminals, following a murder case in Taiwan.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Carrie Lam has announced she wants to restore peace in Hong Kong and is having a rethink on a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China. Photo: AFP

Ms Lam said that the urgency felt to pass the bill before the legislative year ends "perhaps no longer exists".

Hundreds of thousands of people have protested against the bill and further demonstrations are planned for tomorrow.

But critics said it would expose people in Hong Kong to China's deeply flawed justice system and lead to further erosion of the city's judicial independence.

Hong Kong is a former British colony, but was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal that guarantees it a level of autonomy.

What was the controversy about?

The changes would allow for criminal extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau - decided on a case-by-case basis by Hong Kong courts.

It comes after a high-profile case where a Hong Kong man was accused of murdering his girlfriend on holiday in Taiwan but could not be extradited.

Hong Kong officials, including Ms Lam, say the bill is necessary to protect the city against criminals.

But many fear the law could be used to target political opponents of the Chinese state.

Opposition activists also cite the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions and forced confessions in mainland China.

Protests turned violent mid-week

A large-scale march, which organisers said drew more than one million people, was held last Sunday.

Then on Wednesday tens of thousands gathered to blockade streets around government headquarters to try to stop the second reading, or debate, of the extradition bill.

Protesters react to a cloud of tear gas near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 12, 2019.

Protesters try to flee tear gas during the protest on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Tensions boiled over and 22 police and 60 protesters were injured. Authorities say 11 people were arrested.

The police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets, have been accused of excessive force by some rights groups.

Until today's announcement, Ms Lam had not spoken publicly since she labelled the protests "organised riots" during a tearful address.

Is Hong Kong part of China?

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841, when China ceded the island to the British after the First Opium War which had erupted over British traders smuggling opium into China. It remained a colony until sovereignty was returned to China in 1997.

It is now part of China under a "one country, two systems" principle, which ensures that it keeps its own judicial independence, its own legislature and economic system.

It is what China calls a special administrative region, enjoying a great deal of autonomy that has made it a key business and media hub in the region.

But it remains subject to pressure from mainland China, and Beijing remains responsible for defence and foreign affairs.

Fears over more control for China

People in Hong Kong are worried that should the extradition bill pass, it would bring Hong Kong more decisively under China's control.

Hong Kong officials have said its courts will have the final say whether to grant extradition requests.

Ms Lam's government has also said suspects accused of political and religious crimes will not be extradited, insisting legally binding human rights safeguards will also be in place.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs