As Hong Kong Protesters Push On, No Sign of More Concessions by Government

ImageChief Executive Carrie Lam speaking to the media on Thursday in Hong Kong. She promised to establish a “dialogue platform” to address the city’s troubles.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaking to the media on Thursday in Hong Kong. She promised to establish a “dialogue platform” to address the city’s troubles.CreditCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

HONG KONG — A day after Hong Kong’s leader said she would withdraw the extradition bill that set off months of protests, she gave no sign on Thursday that more concessions would be forthcoming, even as dissatisfied protesters planned to hold more demonstrations.

The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said she was optimistic that pulling the bill, along with other measures she offered on Wednesday, would help Hong Kong break its “impasse.” At a news conference, she called on peaceful demonstrators not to legitimize “the really violent protesters,” in what some saw as an attempt to divide the movement.

But there was little evidence that withdrawing the bill, which would have allowed extradition to mainland China, would satisfy even the more moderate demonstrators. Since the protests began in June, the demonstrators’ demands have broadened to include political reforms and an independent investigation of the police, whose use of violence in response to the protests has angered many in the city.

“I don’t accept this,” said Karen Poon, 31, a social worker who counts herself among the moderate demonstrators. “Anyone who has committed crimes, neglected their duty and abused their power throughout this incident should be punished by law, in order to uphold real justice.”

Ms. Poon added: “What everyone is defending now is not only the anti-extradition cause, but also the universal values of love and justice.”

Withdrawing the extradition bill had been widely seen as the easiest step the government could take to appease the protesters. The bill — which many Hong Kongers feared could expose people in the semiautonomous city to mainland China’s opaque judicial system — had already been suspended, but until Wednesday, Mrs. Lam had refused to formally withdraw it.

ImageProtesters reacting to tear gas fired by riot police officers in Hong Kong in July. Demonstrators want an independent investigation of the police.
Protesters reacting to tear gas fired by riot police officers in Hong Kong in July. Demonstrators want an independent investigation of the police.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

She suggested on Wednesday that democratic reforms could eventually be a possibility, under the right circumstances. But she dismissed the protesters’ other demands. She did not address them on Thursday, instead promising to establish a “dialogue platform” to address the city’s troubles.

Demonstrators said they would carry on with protests that had been scheduled for this week, including plans to disrupt access to the airport on Saturday and to stage various small rallies. Plans for large-scale marches were also being discussed.

Many hard-line protesters criticized Mrs. Lam’s move on Wednesday, saying it was “too little, too late.” Not long after her announcement on Wednesday, a group of protesters heckled officers at a police station in the Mong Kok area, aiming laser pointers at them and creating a makeshift barricade to block a road.

Around the same time, scuffles broke out between police officers and protesters at a subway station in the Po Lam neighborhood, and three people were arrested. A worker at the station was hospitalized, according to the MTR Corporation, which runs the subway system.

There were positive reactions to Mrs. Lam’s Wednesday announcement, including from several business groups. The protests have taken a toll on tourism, retail and small businesses, putting pressure on an economy that was already suffering from the United States-China trade dispute.

Robert Grieves, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, called the bill’s withdrawal “an important first step to restore business confidence and the city’s international reputation.”

Protesters clashed with the police at the Po Lam subway station on Wednesday night.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

But there were also signs of broad dissatisfaction. Protest slogans echoed in housing complexes and neighborhoods across the city at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, in what has become a nightly ritual.

A joint statement from 11 Hong Kong student unions called Mrs. Lam’s move a “fatal misassessment of public opinion” and an “insult to Hong Kongers who have been fighting for freedom and protecting our basic rights.” On Thursday, student protesters formed human chains at several high school and university campuses.

Most demonstrators this summer have been peaceful, but a smaller group of more confrontational protesters have clashed violently with the police. In recent weeks, the police have deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters, some of whom have thrown gasoline bombs and set fires in the streets.

Withdrawing the bill was just one of five demands from the protesters, and few expect all four of the others to be met, at least in the near future.

Democratic reforms would be a long-term possibility at best, and two of the other demands — amnesty for the more than 1,000 protesters arrested so far, and a retraction of the description of some protesters as “rioters” — are seen by some as potentially compromising the judicial system’s independence, although Mrs. Lam has the power to grant pardons and commute sentences.

But the demand for an independent inquiry into the police’s conduct appears to have wide support, including from members of Mrs. Lam’s own government. The police’s failure in July to stop a mob attack on protesters and bystanders at a train station has been viewed with suspicion, and recent acts of violence caught on video — including officers’ use of pepper spray and batons against people in a subway car last weekend — have stoked further anger against the force.

Some high school students demonstrated on Thursday morning. Protesters said they would carry on with events that had been scheduled for this week.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Mrs. Lam implicitly acknowledged that anger on Wednesday when she said she would add two members to an existing police review board and set up a panel of international experts to help with its investigations. But that board does not have subpoena power and is seen as dominated by government supporters, and critics said Mrs. Lam’s moves fell far short of the independent inquiry that protesters want.

“Setting up an independent inquiry is one of the simplest demands,” said Bonnie Leung, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several large-scale marches in recent months. “It is the only way that can make them be accountable to the laws and people again so that Hong Kongers can rebuild trust with the police and the government.”

Analysts have expressed doubt that Mrs. Lam would take such a step, which would almost certainly prompt a backlash from the police. The Chinese government’s strong support for the police would also be an obstacle, they said.

“It would become a major political issue if Carrie Lam did it,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “And I don’t think she has that kind of political courage.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Chinese government had made no official statement on the bill’s withdrawal. Its main representative in Hong Kong, the Central Liaison Office, posted an article from a local newspaper on its website, with the headline, “Withdrawal is a sign of good will. Violence must be stopped with stronger determination.”

At her news conference, Mrs. Lam said the decision to withdraw the bill had been hers, pushing back on recent reports suggesting that China’s leaders had been the real decision-makers during this summer’s crisis. “They respect my decision and they support it at every stage,” she said.

But some were skeptical.

“I think she was able to make this concession because she got the green light from Beijing,” said Samson Yuen, a scholar at Lingnan University who studies social movements in Hong Kong. “Otherwise, she would have done this long ago.”

Zoe Mou contributed research from Beijing.

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