Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday said her administration will formally withdraw planned legal amendments that could allow extradition to mainland China, in a move that was quickly slammed by protesters as "too little, too late" after months of police violence and government inaction.
Lam announced her government's intention to remove the planned amendments to extradition laws from gazetted draft legislation, a move that can only take place when the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) reopens in October following the storming of the building by protesters on July 1.
"The Fugitive Offenders Bill will be formally withdrawn in order to fully allay public concerns. The Secretary for Security will move a motion according to the Rules of Procedure when the Legislative Council resumes," Lam told journalists on Wednesday.
Lam said the government would "fully support" the work of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) as it investigates complaints of police brutality and abuse of power over the past three months of protest and mass civil disobedience.
Critics say the IPCC lacks any legal power to carry out an investigation into complaints, which must be carried out by police themselves, and have repeatedly insisted on an independent public inquiry instead.
While Lam repeated her call for dialogue with people "from all walks of life" in Hong Kong, she declined to address the remaining demands of protesters for an amnesty for more than 1,000 people arrested during the protests, an end to the description of protesters as "rioters," and fully democratic elections.
Instead, she repeated Beijing's warning that acts of vandalism targeting the national emblems of the People's Republic of China had "put Hong Kong in a highly vulnerable and dangerous situation."
"The government will strictly enforce the law against all violent and illegal acts," she said.
'Way out of touch'
Joshua Wong, a student leader in the 2014 pro-democracy movement who now is now a leader of the political party Demosisto, said Lam was "way out of touch."
"Carrie Lam's response comes after 7 lives sacrificed, more than 1,200 protestors arrested, in which many are mistreated in police station," Wong wrote via his Twitter account.
"The intensified police brutality in the previous weeks have left an irreversible scar to the entire HK society," Wong said. "And therefore, at this very moment, when Carrie Lam announced withdrawal, people would not believe it is a 'sincere' move."
"HK people are well-aware of her notorious track record," he added, noting that one of Lam's advisers had earlier advocated the use of secret police to quell protests. "Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights."
Wong said Lam and the ruling Chinese Communist Party had conceded nothing, and warned that a "full-scale clampdown is on the way."
Jimmy Sham, convenor of march organizers the Civil Human Rights Front, said Lam's speech would exacerbate current divisions in Hong Kong society between supporters of Beijing and those who want more liberal democracy.
"It is very unlikely that Carrie Lam's decision to formally withdraw the extradition law amendments will do anything to quell the current dispute, because how would we be able to look all those people who have made so many sacrifices in the face again?"
"This isn't going to heal divisions in Hong Kong public opinion; it will exacerbate the conflict between the [pro-democracy] and [pro-police] camps," Sham said. "That is the most worrying thing."
A number of pro-democracy lawmakers also hit out at Lam's response as being too late to do any good.
"There is no way that the people of Hong Kong are going to buy these fake goods which don't quite pass muster, coming as late in the day as they do," Democratic Party lawmaker Wu Chi-wai told RFA.
"The pan-democratic camp and the Democratic Party will continue to support the five demands [of the anti-extradition movement]," Wu said.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said people are now living in an atmosphere of fear following several months of violence and mass arrests at the hands of the authorities.
"In the past few months, the people of Hong Kong have given their blood, sweat and in some cases even their lives," Yeung said.
"Make no mistake about it, we know that the only way to resolve the situation is for all five demands to be met. In particular the demand for fully democratic elections and systemic political reform is of paramount importance."
Hong Kong clothing magnate Michael Tien, a former member of the pro-Beijing Liberal Party, also said Lam had responded too late to calm public anger.
"If we're only talking about withdrawal, then it's probably too late, because the real pressure points aren't around this any more," he said. "We are under daily attack, and every time a video clip emerges of an attack, everyone blames the other side."
"We are a long way from it being a question of just the anti-extradition amendments now," Tien said.
Threat to status
The amendments to existing extradition laws are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected under 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 the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and extradited to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.
But recent public opinion polls have indicated that public anger over police violence against mostly young and unarmed protesters has been a key driver of attendance at mass peaceful protests, where marchers have numbered in the millions on some occasions.
Widespread and credible reports of sexual mistreatment and injuries suffered by arrested protesters in police custody have also fueled calls for an independent public inquiry, including from one in seven of Hong Kong’s elite civil servants.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.