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Hong Kong Leader Formally Withdraws Controversial Bill

Key Rights Issues Remain Unaddressed

People watch the television as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam makes an announcement on the extradition bill, at a retailer in Hong Kong, September 4, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced today that the government would formally withdraw a proposed bill that would have enabled extradition to mainland China. While this was a key demand of protesters in Hong Kong, it left unresolved many other important rights issues.

An unprecedented number and diversity of Hong Kong people have protested since June, initially about the extradition bill, but increasingly about the erosion of human rights and the authorities’ failure to deliver on guarantees of universal suffrage, among other issues. Numerous incidents of excessive force by police against peaceful protesters may have done more than even the extradition bill or the failure to advance voting rights to galvanize public opposition to the Hong Kong government. A private Lam speech that was leaked this week, in which she said she would have stepped down and apologized had Beijing allowed her to do so, confirmed many people’s view that Hong Kong’s autonomy is not much more than rhetorical.

Beijing doubtlessly wants people off Hong Kong’s streets by October 1, when the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 70 years in power. Presumably the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill – which Hong Kong authorities had declared “dead” earlier in the summer – was among the easiest concessions to achieve that outcome. But Beijing has also reminded the world in words and video that it has the capacity to use force to end demonstrations, and that the imposition of emergency restrictions in Hong Kong remains an option.

What steps might genuinely speak to the concerns of Hong Kong people? An independent investigation into police violence is a top priority. Lam’s decision to appoint two new members to the existing internal police oversight body, which lacks public confidence, indicates ongoing resistance to genuine accountability. Also crucial is making progress towards universal suffrage and removing barriers to running for office. Authorities could also drop charges against anyone arbitrarily arrested during the demonstrations.

Notwithstanding the Chinese government’s unsupported claims that “foreign forces” have been behind the protests, governments have been tepid in demonstrating support for Hong Kong’s rights movement. They should not simply accept the bill’s withdrawal as a sufficient concession, but instead consider it an impetus for speaking out forcefully on behalf of Hong Kong people’s rights.

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