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Carrie Lam Fails to Extinguish the Flame of Resistance

SNA (London) — Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam formally withdrew the controversial extradition bill last Wednesday, explaining in a five-minute television address that it was done “in order to fully allay public concerns.” Lam also announced a host of other measures intended to quell public unrest triggered by the proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed authorities in Taiwan, Macau, and mainland China to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China, marking the effective end of the “one country, two systems” twenty-eight years prematurely. The signs are already clear that these measures were insufficient.

Lam had previously “suspended” the bill and declared it “dead,” but demonstrators were not placated. Many pointed out that the bill could simply be reintroduced to the Legislative Council after public opposition quietened down. This led to Lam’s final decision last Wednesday.

The other policies announced by Lam included hiring two new members of a police watchdog agency, launching an investigation into the causes of the demonstrations, and initiating a dialogue between demonstrators and the government. Lam explained, “from this month, I and my principal officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue… people from all walks of life, with different views and backgrounds are invited to share their views and air their grievances.”

These move came only a few days after Reuters published a bombshell: a leaked recording from a meeting Lam held with businesspeople at a private gathering. In remarks which appeared to have been made in a completely candid and private manner, Lam revealed that she had essentially been forced to stay on as chief executive by Beijing, since the extradition bill fiasco had escalated to “a sort of sovereignty and security level.” Crucially, Lam divulged that “if I have a choice, the first thing is to quit” since she caused “unforgivable havoc” in Hong Kong.

Lam later lambasted Reuters, asserting it was “totally unacceptable” that the recording was released. She claimed that her decision to stay on was completely of her own free will, but she did not deny the authenticity of the recording.

Critics have suggested it was a calculated attempt to evade responsibility before harshly cracking down on the Hong Kong protests. This would make sense. Lam would be keen to clamp down on the demonstrations, as they have torpedoed her reputation within Hong Kong. Her “confession” of a desire to resign and her decision to withdraw the extradition bill are desperate attempts to salvage what remains of her good name.

Withdrawing the extradition bill, extending an olive branch to lull protesters into a false sense of security, and then forcibly quashing the demonstrations is not an entirely implausible scenario going forward. Some Hongkongers certainly believe in this possibility. Joshua Wong, a high-profile activist who spearheaded the 2014 Umbrella Movement, wrote in a Metro opinion piece that “the truth behind this olive branch is by no means a reconciliation, but a tighter grip.” The Emergency Regulations Ordinance gives Carrie Lam the power to censor the press, to seize control of ports and transportation, and to make sweeping arrests. Frighteningly, the colonial era law theoretically allows her to seize property and deport people at will.

Protesters have indicated that they will not let their guard down and end or scale down their demonstrations following Lam’s withdrawal of the bill. Joshua Wong declared on Twitter that it was “too little, too late,” neatly summing up the general mood of the demonstrators. Many Hongkongers cited a screengrab from Winter on Fire, a documentary about the 2015 pro-European Union Ukrainian movement. It featured the lines, “If we accept the government’s conditions, our friends who have died won’t forgive us.”

Aside from the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, protesters have presented four other demands: an independent investigation into police brutality, a withdrawal of the “riot” description of demonstrations by police, amnesty for arrested protesters, and genuine democratic reforms. The slogan “five demands, not one less” has become popular among demonstrators in recent days.

While opposing the extradition bill was the initial trigger for the demonstrations, it has since become a wider movement against police brutality, against Beijing’s repeated attempts to destroy “one country, two systems,” and for true democratic reforms.

Police brutality has become rampant with officers deploying water cannons and tear gas against demonstrators, firing rubber bullets, and even live warning shots. Police have stormed railway carriages, beating up protesters and commuters. Witnesses said they didn’t even arrest any of the people they beat up.

Beijing insists that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 is a “historical document” and has abducted booksellers and business tycoons from Hong Kong. They have disqualified democratically elected pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council, and have banned pro-independence parties altogether.

Carrie Lam, through tabling the extradition bill, inadvertently lit a flame of resistance in Hongkongers, awakening their rebellious spirit, steeped in the island’s long history of protest.

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