Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam appeared to extend an olive branch to the city's mass anti-extradition movement on Tuesday, promising that widely hated amendments to existing extradition laws were "dead."
"The bill is dead," Lam told a news conference, temporarily breaking into English from Cantonese to make her point. However, her phrase in Cantonese was closer to "dying peacefully in old age."
"There are still lingering doubts about the government's sincerity, or worries whether the government will restart the process in the Legislative Council (LegCo)," she said in an English statement immediately afterwards. "I reiterate here there is no such plan—the bill is dead."
Students have rejected the government's overtures out of hand, demanding that she first declare an amnesty for all those arrested in connection with recent protests, drop allegations of "rioting" used by police and some officials to describe the events of June 12, and formally withdraw the planned amendments before the end of the current LegCo term in 2020.
Lam on Tuesday stopped short of meeting those demands head-on, instead claiming that the government has never used "rioting" as an official description of the protests, and nodding to the fact that the vast majority of protesters marched in a peaceful and orderly way, consistent with Hong Kong's "core values."
Protesters also want an independent public inquiry into police use of tear gas, rubber and textile bullets, pepper spray and batons during the anti-extradition campaign, especially during protests on June 12.
Jordan Pang, student representative from the University of Hong Kong said the government must accede to all of the protesters' demands before students will consider entering a dialogue.
"Legally, it is meaningless to say that the bill is dead," Pang told RFA. "Technically, there is no difference between her saying that, and saying that the bill has been suspended."
"This isn't the withdrawal we're looking for," he said. "This movement isn't only about students; it's not even led by students."
"She should be answerable to the people of Hong Kong as to the use of outdated laws regarding illegal gatherings in the Public Order Ordinance, and the use of rioting charges to prosecute members of the public," he said. "This is absolutely unreasonable."
Amnesty 'not acceptable'
Lam said calls for an amnesty for those arrested were "not acceptable," because the decision whether or not prosecute should be taken independently of political considerations, and said that, instead of an independent inquiry, a "fact-finding study" would be carried out by the city's police complaints body, which analysts say has no investigatory powers and has to rely on the police investigating themselves.
She also insisted that a minority had engaged in "violent acts," in an apparent reference to protesters smashing their way into LegCo and spray-painting surveillance cameras and anti-extradition graffiti on government property, as opposed to attacks on people.
"We are sad to see these violent acts because they undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong," she said, calling for a community dialogue via an "open, constructive, interactive platform" that would include people from different backgrounds, especially young people.
"Whenever I and my officials are needed to take part in the dialogue, we are very happy to do so," she said, adding that the government "should build more open platforms to facilitate dialogues in a very frank manner."
Lam drew parallels between the 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement and a string of mass protests in recent weeks that have seen millions turn out to call on her to formally withdraw the extradition bill, as well as the temporary occupation of government buildings and LegCo, prompting shutdowns in each case.
The protests have also seen renewed calls for full universal suffrage with no restrictions on who can stand as a candidate.
"Five years ago, we finished Occupy Central, we moved on without addressing those fundamental problems," Lam said in a reference to campaigners' demands for fully democratic elections, which was ruled out by China's National People's Congress standing committee in August 2014.
"I don't think we could continue to ignore those fundamental and deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society," Lam said, repeating more publicly the government's recent attempts to set up dialogue with student unions and other groups.
Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the anti-extradition marches, said Lam's approach hasn't actually changed.
"Carrie Lam's basic position hasn't changed," Sham said. "She still seems to think that suspension is the same as withdrawal."
"But actually this is really a failure to respect the legislative processes of the Legislative Council: it's not legal terminology at all," he said. "I'm pretty sure you won't find any reference to 'dying peacefully in old age' on the statute books of Hong Kong."
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said Lam's words are unlikely to put an end to the protest movement.
"There is no way that this political movement will be pacified by [her comments] right now," Wu said. "Public trust in the Hong Kong government is going to fall away to nothing, and we will continue to see acts of civil resistance from different communities."
"This administration has also lost any effective basis for governance, which will lead to its destabilization," he said.
Chinese University of Hong Kong Students Union president So Tsun-fung agreed that nothing appeared to have changed as a result of Lam's press conference.
"We don't know if Carrie Lam's proposals today really mean ... a dialogue that involves all citizens who can take part in public forums," So said.
"More importantly, we don't represent all of the [anti-extradition] protesters ... and she didn't promise not to prosecute any protesters, so basically it's not going to happen anyway."
Meeting on autonomy
Hong Kong media boss and democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai met U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday to discuss concerns about the former British colony’s autonomy after an estimated half a million people took to the streets to protest the extradition bill on Sunday.
China's foreign ministry on Tuesday slammed the meeting, saying that Beijing “resolutely opposes intervention by foreign forces in Hong Kong affairs."
“[The United States] has repeatedly interfered in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs," a spokesman said, adding that Beijing has lodged a diplomatic protest over the meeting.
"[We have] demanded that the U.S. immediately stop the wrong words and deeds. Don’t keep going farther and farther on this wrong path," a spokesman for Beijing’s foreign ministry commissioner in Hong Kong said.
The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected by the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese officials, and extradited to face trial in Chinese courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long and Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.