Bill gone - ball now in protesters' court

Editorial | Mary Ma 5 Sep 2019

At long last! Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has agreed to officially withdraw the contentious fugitive extradition bill, after nearly three months of protests and mayhem.

Her televised statement yesterday marked another step after first suspending the bill, then declaring it dead, and now undertaking to withdraw it formally from the Legislative Council's agenda.

It's unnecessary that a move that could have been completed in one go had to be split into three smaller steps.

This third step - which could also be viewed as a quantum leap for Lam - obviously should have come earlier to spare Hong Kong from all the carnage over the past three months. Had she been willing to skip the first two steps, the situation would most likely be entirely different by now.

In hindsight, the standoff for the past few months was much ado about nothing.

If Reuters' report that Lam had submitted a report to Beijing saying withdrawing the bill and ordering an independent inquiry would help defuse the crisis (although reportedly rejected by Beijing) was true, and her tape recording showing she would rather quit if given a choice was to be trusted, then what she announced in her TV speech was the farthest she could go for now.

After the bill is withdrawn, demonstrators can no longer brand their protests as "anti-extradition."

Critics said Lam stopped short of meeting the other four demands raised by protesters - namely launching an independent inquiry into excessive force used by the police, declaring amnesty for those arrested, retracting the "riot" characterization of the unrest, and reactivating democratic reforms.

While it's true she didn't meet those demands, it's misleading to accuse her of not addressing them. She did - only that she didn't agree with them.

Of the remaining demands, the calls for an independent inquiry and democratic reforms may be the most contentious of all, whereas others related to amnesty and retracting the riot characterization have a lot to do with the law.

If Lam was barred from acting further to order an independent probe, she was evidently trying to maneuver within her limits to expand the Independent Police Complaints Council's inquiry. This included adding two more people - senior counsel Paul Lam Ting-kwok and her ex-campaign adviser, Helen Yu Lai Ching-ping - to the overseas experts she promised earlier to invite to join the IPCC investigation.

Meanwhile, the Civic Human Rights Front's rejection of the concession as too little was anticipated.

The question is how others who participated in peaceful demonstrations during the past months view Lam's "olive branch." Will an official withdrawal of the bill be good enough to split the "peaceful, rational, non-violent" ones from the radicals? That's clearly what Lam and Beijing want.

The fear is that if violence persists despite the concession, the SAR administration would have stronger grounds to invoke emergency laws to crack down on people's freedoms in order to eradicate the opposition.

Hong Kong is now at another tricky point with the ball in the protesters' court. They must think about their next move responsibly. No matter what, violence has no moral strength and cannot be an option.

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