June 20, 2019 / 9:04 AM / a month ago

Hong Kong lets protesters' deadline to scrap extradition bill pass, setting stage for further demos

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam appeared to ignore a Thursday deadline set by some protesters to withdraw an extradition bill that she promoted then postponed, setting the stage for a new wave of demonstrations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference in Hong Kong, China, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Lam suspended the bill, which would allow criminal suspects in the former British colony to be extradited to mainland China for trial, but some student groups called on her to axe it altogether, setting the 5 p.m. (0900 GMT) deadline.

They are also demanding that the government drop all charges against those arrested during last week’s protests, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.

The activists pledged to surround the Legislative Council on Friday if their demands were not met, which would reignite tension in the financial hub and raise new questions about the Beijing-backed Lam’s ability to lead the city. A few dozen protesters gathered peacefully outside government headquarters on Thursday evening.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.

But many residents are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip over the city and what they see as an erosion of civil liberties. Courts on the mainland are controlled by the Communist Party.

The bill prompted millions to take to the streets this month, triggering some of the most violent protests in decades as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and marking the biggest challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.

Campaigners have registered thousands of new voters during the mass protests, pouncing on an opportunity to bolster the democratic opposition’s prospects in upcoming elections.

The city’s pro-democracy camp needs a strong showing in city-wide legislative polls next year to recapture a big enough bloc to veto proposals from pro-establishment rivals, who now dominate the 70-seat legislature.

Beijing has said it respects and supports Lam’s decision to suspend the extradition bill, but has been angered by criticism from Western capitals, including Washington, about the legislation.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday threw her influence behind bipartisan legislation to require the Trump administration to certify Beijing is maintaining its special treatment of Hong Kong.

China’s foreign ministry on Thursday again hit back at what it described as forces trying to destroy Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.

Lam has stopped short of saying the extradition bill will be withdrawn, stating only that it would not be introduced during her time in office if public concerns persist.

She has apologized for the turmoil the bill has caused, saying she has heard the people “loud and clear”, although she rejected calls to step down.

Slideshow (6 Images)

The Civil Human Rights Front, organizer of a protest on Sunday that it said attracted about 2 million people, is gearing up for an annual pro-democracy march on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the handover.

The group has called on people to turn out in force.

The failure of pro-democracy protests in 2014 to wrestle concessions from Beijing, coupled with prosecutions of at least 100 protesters, had discouraged many young people from going back out on the streets - until this month.

Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree, Jessie Pang and Vimvam Tong, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie

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