Hong Kong extradition bill officially killed, but more unrest likely

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday formally withdrew planned legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but the move was unlikely to end months of unrest as it met just one of five demands of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The rallying cry of the protesters, who have trashed public buildings in the Chinese-ruled city, set street fires and pelted police with petrol bombs, has been “five demands, not one less”, meaning the withdrawal of the bill makes no difference.

Hundreds of protesters gathered peacefully outside the British Consulate, waving British flags, chanting “stand with Hong Kong” and calling for support for a British parliamentary debate on the citizenship status of Hong Kong people scheduled for Thursday.

Britain has vowed support for Hong Kong, a former British colony handed back to China in 1997. But, given its plan to leave the European Union, Britain is also hoping for trading and investment opportunities with China.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had said many times the extradition bill was as good as dead and that other demands, including universal suffrage and an amnesty for all those charged with rioting, were beyond her control.

Protesters are also calling for her to stand down and for an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality during a long hot summer of running battles on the streets.

“There aren’t any big differences between suspension and withdrawal (of the extradition bill)...It’s too little, too late,” said 27-year-old protester Connie, hours before the bill was pulled. “There are still other demands the government needs to meet, especially the problem of police brutality.”

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Most protesters do not give their full names to avoid being identified.

Police have responded to protester violence with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and several live rounds.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula enshrined during the 1997 handover, which permits the city wide-ranging freedoms not available on the mainland such as an independent judiciary.

The extradition bill would have allowed defendants charged with serious crimes to be sent for trial abroad, including to Communist Party-controlled courts in China.

The bill was seen as the latest move by Beijing to erode those freedoms. China has denied these claims and accuses foreign countries, especially Britain and the United States, of fomenting trouble in Hong Kong.

A murder suspect whose case Lam had originally held up as showing the need for the extradition bill walked free on Wednesday as the city’s government squabbled with Taiwan over how to handle his potential voluntary surrender to authorities.

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China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province, has offered the “one country, two systems” formula for it to unite with the mainland. Fiercely democratic Taiwan has rejected the offer, with Tsai saying this month that such an arrangement had set Hong Kong “on the edge of disorder”.

China, which has many times expressed confidence in Lam and her government to end the unrest, was drawing up a plan to replace her with an “interim” chief executive, the Financial Times reported, citing people briefed on the deliberations.

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Lam has become a lightning rod for protests and another of the protesters’ demands has been for her to stand down.

The leading candidates to succeed Lam include Norman Chan, former head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and Henry Tang, who has also served as the territory’s financial secretary and chief secretary for administration, the FT report said.

A spokesman said Tang did not comment on speculation and that he supported Lam as chief executive.

A senior official in Beijing, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said none of the suggested candidates listed in the FT story could take over from Lam, according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution which came into force in 1997.

He said that if the chief executive was unable to discharge his or her duties, they would be taken over temporarily by the administrative secretary, financial secretary or justice secretary, in that order. A new leader would be selected within six months.

But Beijing had prepared all kinds of contingency plans for different scenarios in Hong Kong, including Lam’s administration totally losing control of the situation, the official said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the FT report was political rumor with ulterior motives.

Over recent months, Beijing has set up a special team working from Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, to gather information, and it acts as the major communication channel between Hong Kong and Beijing, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Lam’s office was authorized to talk to the team directly without going through Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, one of the people said. The Liaison Office, the symbol of Chinese rule, was attacked and daubed with anti-China graffiti in July.

In September, in response to a Reuters report about a recording of Lam saying she would step down if she could, she said she had never asked the Chinese government to let her resign.

Reporting by Clare Jim, Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei, Ben Blanchard and Lusha Zhang in Beijing and Keith Zhai in Singapore; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich