In HK’s political heart, a semblance of normality after protests and clashes over extradition bill

19-Jun-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 7:04 AM Print This Post

Roads in and out of Hong Kong’s political nerve centre reopened on Tuesday morning after six days of intermittent closure by mass rallies, improvised sit-ins and violent clashes sparked by the city’s extradition bill.

The government’s Admiralty headquarters were open for the first time since June 12, but the city leader’s de facto cabinet was not expected to have its weekly meeting.

At about 7.30am, only a few protesters were resting outside the administration’s offices, in addition to a dozen or so next door at the Legislative Council’s demonstration area.

As civil servants returned to work, nurses and first-aiders were still taking turns to man their stations.

Polly Liu, who works as a patient assistant, had gone to the legislature early, right after her overnight shift at Queen Mary Hospital ended. “The government has still not withdrawn the bill and responded to our requests. It looks like they are making concessions, but they have not actually addressed our demands,” the 50-year-old said.

The protesters were railing against a bill tabled at Legco in March and previously due to resume a second reading on June 12. If passed, it would allow Hong Kong to surrender criminal suspects on a case-by-case basis to more than 170 jurisdictions it has yet to strike a long-term extradition agreement with, including mainland China.

While the government said it was needed to plug legal loopholes, the bill drew massive opposition amid claims it left Hongkongers at risk of unfair prosecution on the mainland, and could damage the city’s reputation as a centre of free commerce.

On Saturday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suspended, but did not fully withdraw, the legislation.

Lam’s predecessor said the debacle had seriously damaged Hong Kong’s reputation. Writing on social media, Leung Chun-ying urged local business chambers to send delegates to explain the bill to foreign groups.

“Various commerce chambers accepted the proposal after the [city] government made concessions. They know best the chain of events and therefore have the most say,” Leung wrote on Tuesday.

The work of explaining the bill could not rest with Chinese embassies or Hong Kong’s economic and trade offices, and “especially” not with foreign media, he added.

Though few protesters were in Admiralty on Tuesday, Liu believed more would come. “It’s a relay,” she said. “I have trust in them.”

Lung Wo Road, a five-lane thoroughfare to the north of the government and Legco buildings, was reopened. Tim Wa Avenue, outside the HQ and the chief executive’s office, was still barricaded off by police.

One civil servant returning to work, who was in his 20s but asked not to be named, was disappointed with the government’s handling of the crisis.

We are now officially a lame-duck government

Civil servant

“I am against the bill,” he said. “I think a lot of colleagues, regardless of their stance on the bill itself, share the common view that senior echelons, especially the chief executive, handled the situation poorly.”

“There were multiple occasions where she could have done way better to avoid the clashes and political deadlock.”

Some employees were worried about how the government could function in the upcoming three years, having lost residents’ trust, he said, adding: “We are now officially a lame-duck government.”

Another civil servant, who marched against the bill on Sunday, said the government’s refusal to budge, after a big demonstration on June 9, had forced the escalation.

“Carrie Lam is definitely unable to govern any longer. But what can you do if she continues to make a futile attempt to defend the indefensible?” said the 39-year-old, surnamed Lau.

Despite the reopening, the Executive Council, which advises the city leader, was not scheduled to have its regular Tuesday meeting. Lam was expected to meet the media at some point, as she usually does before the Exco meeting.

The protests in Admiralty had started to thin out on Monday, as cabinet members came out to ease the political crisis. A few said the bill’s suspension was equivalent to a withdrawal.

Kabe Lam and Phoebe Kwok, both 16, slept overnight in the Legco demonstration area after joining the rally on Monday evening, and were among the few still around when the government headquarters reopened.

I don’t want the actions to get too radical if the government fails us again after the deadline. I don’t want anyone, be they protesters or police, to be injured any more

Phoebe Kwok, protester

“I think it’s a reasonable decision for most of us to leave,” said Lam, who had applied for a day off school. “We should get some rest and come back when something happens.”

Kwok, who was on a student strike, believed the protesters should give the government a deadline to respond to their demands, including withdrawing the bill and not charging arrested protesters with rioting.

“But I don’t want the actions to get too radical if the government fails us again after the deadline. I don’t want anyone, be they protesters or police, to be injured any more,” she said.

Kwok found the protests, which had been largely decentralised in the previous 10 days, a bit disorganised. “Sometimes I don’t know what others are doing and what I am supposed to do,” she said.

Lam said they slept pretty well on the bare stone floor because of exhaustion, saying: “We will go home soon and take some rest. But we will be back if needed.”

Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-chung backed down on his earlier categorisation of last Wednesday’s clashes between his officers and anti-extradition protesters as a riot. Lo said only people who threw bricks and wielded metal poles against officers during the clashes would be accused of breaching anti-rioting laws.

Government headquarters was closed at about 10am that day, because of severe congestion in roads nearby. That came two hours after Harcourt Road was occupied by protesters, who soon paralysed other roads in the area.

Severe clashes took place in the afternoon and lasted past midnight. Police used more than 150 rounds of tear gas, at least 20 beanbag rounds, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The police chief declared the protest a riot before such force was used, but backed down late on Monday, saying only some people rioted.

On Sunday, the day after the bill’s suspension, nearly 2 million people took to the streets, according to organisers, to urge a full withdrawal and demand Lam’s resignation. Roads around government headquarters were occupied again after the march.


Category: Hong Kong

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