HONG KONG — Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said Wednesday that the government would withdraw a contentious extradition bill that ignited months of protests in the city, moving to quell the worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese control 22 years ago.
The move responds to a major demand of the protesters, who feared China would exploit the measure to extradite suspects for prosecution in China’s opaque judicial system. But it was unclear whether the concession would be enough to bring an end to intensifying demonstrations, which are now driven by multiple grievances with the government.
“Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” she said in an eight-minute televised statement broadcast shortly before 6 p.m. “We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times.”
Her decision, which was met with skepticism by some prodemocracy figures in Hong Kong, comes as the protests near their three-month mark and show little sign of abating, roiling a city known for its orderliness and hurting its economy.
It also came as something of a surprise: Just a day before, China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office had signaled an uncompromising stance toward the protests. Yang Guang, a spokesman for the office, said at a briefing in Beijing that there could be “no middle ground, no hesitance, and no dithering, when it comes to stopping the violence and controlling riots in Hong Kong.”
A possible hint of a change in Beijing’s stand, however, came from the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. In a speech on Tuesday to the Party School of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, Xi called on rising party officials to show resolve for a long struggle but suggested that the leadership could adjust its tactics to achieve its aims.
“On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded,” Xi said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?,” suggested Wednesday evening that Beijing had asked Lam to make the decision as a tactical calculation ahead of the Oct. 1 anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
The aim, he said, was “to calm down the movement’s moderates” and “weaken and isolate the radicals.”
“Maybe it is a good calculation on the part of Beijing,” he added, “but it may also fail.”
Lam had suspended the bill in June and later said that it was “dead,” but demonstrators have long been suspicious of her government’s refusal to formally withdraw the bill and feared it could be revived at a later date.
Withdrawal of the bill has remained at the top of the list of protesters’ demands. But the list has grown to include an independent investigation into the police response, amnesty for arrested protesters, and direct elections for all lawmakers and the chief executive.
Michael Tien, a moderate pro-Beijing lawmaker, said withdrawal alone might have been enough to calm the protests in mid-June. But since then, “with the accumulation of so much resentment, so many accusations, and so many disputes,” the establishment of an independent inquiry “is 100 percent necessary,” Tien said.
At least some of the hard-line, pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong expressed skepticism Wednesday evening about Lam’s overture, seeing it not as a clever gambit to ease pressure but rather as a sign of political weakness that would only encourage further protests.
One hard-liner, who insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivities, said that the initial hostility to the overture from democracy advocates showed that the hard-liners’ worries about concessions were being vindicated.
Lam described the withdrawal as a step to initiate dialogue. She also said she would add two members to an existing police review board, but that step was far short of calls for an independent investigation.
Claudia Mo, a prodemocracy lawmaker, described Lam’s announcement as a “political performance.”
“That it took her three months to formally use the word withdraw is truly too little, too late,” Mo told reporters. “A big mistake has been made.”
This summer has seen peaceful marches involving hundreds of thousands of people, as well as street protests by smaller groups who have become increasingly violent in recent weeks, throwing bricks and firebombs at police. More than 1,100 people have been arrested since early June. Police, who have used batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters, have faced allegations of excessive force.
Withdrawal of the extradition bill was the initial demand of protesters, and the rallying cry when, by organizers’ estimates, more than 1 million people marched June 9 and nearly 2 million marched a week later, more than 1 in every 4 people in Hong Kong.
Withdrawal of the bill “will help to an insignificant extent,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies.
The concession “might pacify a small sector of the population, but it will not have any impact on whether the waves of protests would subside,” he added.