HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said Monday that she had no intention of withdrawing contentious legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China, despite hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating against it the day before.
“We were doing it, and we are still doing it, out of our clear conscience, and our commitment to Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters in her first remarks about the demonstration.
The protest Sunday was one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history, drawing a mass of people who filled the streets for more than a mile in a striking display of defiance against Beijing’s rule over the semiautonomous territory. Residents marched for hours, chanting “No China extradition” and slogans calling for Lam to resign, a backlash that underscored the rising anxiety and frustration many feel at the erosion of liberties in Hong Kong.
Lam sought to distance her government’s proposal from the ruling Communist Party in Beijing that selected her to lead the city’s government.
“I have not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing to do this bill,” she said.
The immense public outrage poses one of the city’s biggest challenges to the central government in recent years and presents Lam with a balancing act as she tries to push forward on the proposal that China has endorsed.
Lam, whose popularity ratings have sunk in recent weeks, has become the focal point of rising public anger against the proposal, which could spill over into broader unrest or put her job at risk. But if she weathers the protests and gets the legislation passed, she could improve her chances at being appointed to a second term, something no other Hong Kong chief executive has achieved, analysts said.
“I would say that Carrie Lam’s persistence has a lot to do with prioritizing Beijing’s interest over the local population’s,” said Mathew Wong, a professor of political science at the Education University of Hong Kong. “If she loses Beijing’s trust, her career is over, but if she could ride out the dissatisfaction she would have achieved something in Beijing’s eyes.”
Despite Lam’s refusal to back down, organizers of the Sunday protest indicated that they were not giving up and that they planned to continue demonstrations this week. Residents have also been expressing their resistance by signing petitions and announcing plans to go on strike. More than 100 small businesses, cafes, civic groups, and social services — a sliver of Hong Kong’s society — have said they would stop work Wednesday, when Hong Kong’s legislature will resume consideration of the bill.
With the pro-Beijing camp holding a firm majority in the legislature, the bill is all but likely to pass. A vote on the measure is expected June 27, but opposition politicians say they fear the pro-Beijing camp could speed up the process.
There were no signs Monday that the demonstration had led any factions within the Beijing-friendly camp to break ranks. The Liberal Party, which is progovernment, said in a statement after the protest that it respected those who demonstrated but would continue to support the bill, the public broadcaster RTHK reported.
The legislation would allow case-based extraditions to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not have long-term agreements. The government has said it is necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives. The bill has set off widespread fears that allowing criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China would accelerate Beijing’s growing influence over Hong Kong and leave locals subject to the whims of Chinese authorities.
The Hong Kong government has said the bill is necessary to allow the extradition of a Hong Kong man to Taiwan, where he was accused of killing his girlfriend. But authorities in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing, say they would not agree to the extradition arrangement because it would treat Taiwan as a part of China.
A Taiwanese official said in March that Taiwan had sent three requests to Hong Kong for help with the extradition case but got no reply. The Hong Kong government has argued it needs to change the law to overcome procedural barriers, but lawyers and opposition lawmakers have accused it of ignoring narrower approaches to handle the Taiwan case.
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan said Sunday that the protesters had her support.
“We stand with all freedom-loving people of #hongkong,” she wrote on Twitter.
The protest Sunday was mostly peaceful, but after midnight, dozens of remaining demonstrators tried to occupy areas around the legislature and clashed with police officers who used pepper spray and batons in an effort to remove them.
Hong Kong’s prodemocracy camp blamed Lam for the violence, saying that the group of largely young demonstrators had escalated their protest out of frustration with a government statement at 11 p.m. that rejected calls to withdraw the bill.
The legislation has emerged as the biggest test of Lam’s leadership since she took office in 2017. A career civil servant, Lam is known as a determined administrator who sometimes lacks the political savvy to sell her initiatives to the public.
She has “a style of autocratic governance that sees flexibility and compromise in the face of public dissent as a sign of weakness, and therefore a loss of authority,” said Suzanne Pepper, a Hong Kong-based scholar of Chinese politics.
The opposition to the bill is the latest sign of growing unhappiness in Hong Kong over Beijing’s encroachment into the territory. Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model that allows it to maintain better protections for civil liberties and a judicial system considered to be far more independent than that of mainland China, where courts operate under the control of the Communist Party. But many see such freedoms being slowly curtailed by measures like the extradition bill.
One mainland analyst said China’s central government was most likely surprised by the huge turnout at Sunday’s protest, but would continue to support Lam on the extradition law.
“She is a principled person and will not make concessions because of opposition,” said Li Xiaobing, an associate professor of law at Nankai University in the northeastern Chinese city of Tianjin. “Carrie Lam’s position is very firm.”
Significant demonstrations have tarnished the careers of two previous chief executives: Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first leader of the 1997 handover, whose government was forced to withdraw a package of national security laws after 500,000 people protested in 2003, and Leung Chun-ying, who was in charge during the 2014 prodemocracy Umbrella Movement, in which demonstrations shut down several districts.
While the central government will continue to back Lam over the extradition law, it is not immune to concerns about public opinion in Hong Kong, said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“If Beijing feels the chief executive has already lost the support of the overall public, and thinks the 1 million people who turned up yesterday shows she lost that support, then her days are numbered,” he said.