Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam faces mounting pressure over extradition law

Chief executive's aides and allies voice doubts after massive protests against proposed legislation

People attend a rally in support of demonstrators protesting against proposed extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China, June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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Hong Kong's embattled leader faced mounting pressure on Friday to abandon a deeply unpopular plan to allow extraditions to China, with protest organisers getting police go-ahead to hold a new rally at the weekend.

The prospect of a second protest raises the chance of fresh confrontations with the government following unprecedented political unrest.

The international finance hub was rocked by the worst political violence since its 1997 handover to China on Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Opposition to the extradition bill has united an unusually wide cross section of Hong Kong against the proposal and sparked huge rallies.

The city's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam has so far refused to meet protester demands to withdraw or scrap the bill, although rumours were swirling on Friday that a postponement to the bill was imminent.

Throughout the day Ms Lam found herself facing calls from within her own political camp to reverse course and tamp down spiralling public anger.

Prominent pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien openly called on Ms Lam to postpone the bill.

"She would gain points instead of losing points," he told reporters.

"Nothing is ever too late. New situations arise that would provide the basis for any leader to change their position. There's nothing wrong with that."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has insisted that the extradition bill will be put to a vote. Reuters

Mr Tien's comments came as Ms Lam's own adviser said pushing ahead with fast-tracking the bill through the city's legislature had now become "impossible".

"Personally I can see that it is impossible to discuss when there is so much conflict on all sides. It is very difficult," Bernard Chan told RTHK radio.

"At the very least we should not escalate the antagonism," he added, although he stopped short of saying whether the bill should be scrapped.

Mr Chan sits on the Executive Council – the equivalent of a cabinet – and was appointed by Ms Lam two years ago to be a top adviser.

Executive Council member Ronny Tong has also suggested having a consultation on the bill before progressing, according to broadcaster RTHK.

The comments are the first indication that supporters of the extradition law are now having second thoughts, following a growing public backlash.

On Sunday, protest organisers said more than one million people came out for the largest protest the business hub has seen in decades.

Protest leaders met with police on Friday to discuss their plans for another mass rally on Sunday, which was approved after several hours of discussion.

Leading democratic figures said only the complete withdrawal of the bill would stop future protests and calm public anger.

"We can't trust the pro-establishment lawmakers," said pro-democracy legislator Alvin Leung. "We need Carrie Lam's response on whether she will withdraw the bill."

Ms Lam's determination to press ahead with a debate on the proposed law in parliament on Wednesday sparked another huge protest that descended into violence and brought the city's commercial district to a standstill.

Young Hong Kongers, angered by years of sliding democratic freedoms in the city, have been at the forefront of the protests.

But the extradition plan has also received a barrage of criticism from legal bodies, business groups, religious figures and western nations who fear the proposal would tangle both locals and foreigners up in China's politicised and opaque courts.

China's ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, has rejected claims that Beijing was behind the extradition bill, telling the BBC that the "Beijing central government gave no instruction, no order ... This amendment was initiated by the Hong Kong government."

Meanwhile, China's foreign ministry denounced what it called "violent interference" by US legislators critical of what they see as a worsening human rights environment in Hong Kong.

Congressional representatives introduced the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act", which appears designed to put pressure on the territory's leaders to withdraw the extradition law by threatening to remove Hong Kong's status as a US special trading partner.

Some US legislators have "made irresponsible remarks about Hong Kong affairs and violently interfered in China's internal affairs", Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday.

"Relevant people in the United States [should] abandon the illusion of attempting to mess up Hong Kong," Mr Geng said.

"China's determination and will to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests are unflinching," he said.

"We are not afraid of any threats and intimidation. Any vain attempts to create chaos in Hong Kong... will surely be met with the opposition of all Chinese people, including the vast number of Hong Kong compatriots."