Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s “sincere” apology wasn’t sincere enough

Facing the people.
Facing the people.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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In her third press conference in nine days during what has been the most tumultuous period of her time in office, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam today (June 18) acknowledged the controversies and anxieties that the extradition bill has caused, conceded that she has to “personally shoulder much of the responsibility,” and offered her “most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong.”

Still, she repeatedly refused to completely withdraw the hated bill—which would allow Hong Kong to send suspects to mainland China once it becomes law—a major and as yet unmet demand from protesters. However, she pledged that the legislative process for the bill would not resume unless “anxieties and fears” over the bill can be resolved.

Of the five main requests demanded by protesters—the bill’s withdrawal; Lam’s resignation; an investigation into police violence against protesters; retracting the designation of the protest as a “riot,” and an assurance that no protesters will face criminal charges—Lam delivered on one when she stood by the police commissioner’s decision yesterday (June 17) to retract the designation of the protest as a riot. However, those who are accused of attacking the police with bricks and metal poles will still be charged for rioting.

A change in tone

Her statements mark a dramatic change in tone since June 10, when Lam effectively ignored the calls of an estimated 1 million demonstrators who had taken to the streets the day before to protest a hated extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong to send suspects to mainland China to face trial. “There is very little merit to be gained to delay the bill,” she said. “Hong Kong has to move on.”

Lam’s decision to defiantly press ahead with the law brought popular anger to a boiling point, and by Wednesday (June 12) last week, tens of thousands had occupied major roads in the city as they demanded the bill to be withdrawn. The protests turned violent as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the largely peaceful demonstrators, engulfing Hong Kong in its worst political upheaval in years. Many accused the police of using excessive force, including against journalists.

That evening, local broadcaster TVB aired a pre-recorded interview with Lam, who once again came across as aloof and arrogant. In comments that were later widely ridiculed, she compared accepting protesters’ demands to withdraw the extradition bill to a mother giving in to her spoiled children’s demands. Lam’s paternalistic attitude only served to further inflame the public.

Still, Lam refused to budge. It wasn’t until until Saturday (June 15) that she again addressed the press and changed course slightly, saying she would indefinitely suspend—but not withdraw—the controversial bill. The concession was unlikely to have satisfied protesters’ demands to have the law scrapped altogether, but it was her other comments during the 75-minute press conference that infuriated the public. Her refusal to condemn or apologize for the police force’s aggressive tactics, and her insistence that protesters were violent rioters, disappointed many. She also stood by the police’s description of Wednesday’s protests as a “riot,” which carries much heavier jail terms than those for lesser charges.

On Sunday (June 16), an estimated 2 million people returned to the streets to vent their anger, marking the eighth consecutive day of protests of varying sizes. Protesters again demanded that the extradition law be completely withdrawn, for the characterisation of the protests as a riot to be retracted, and for Lam to resign. That evening, Lam apologized through a statement written in third person issued by the government. But again, she said nothing of the protesters’ other demands.

Now what?

The question that faces Lam and the government now is whether her apology is enough. Without a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, however, it appears unlikely that she will regain any semblance of trust from the public.

A withdrawal ensures that the law will not be brought up again within the current term of the Legislative Council, which ends in July 2020. The government would also have to restart the legislative process from scratch if it is reintroduced in the next term. By contrast, a suspension, as is currently the case with the extradition law, means that the bill can resume a second reading at anytime between now and July 2020. Many are therefore questioning why Lam has refused to completely withdraw the extradition bill, and fear that it may be brought back.

With three years left in office, Lam acknowledged that the rest of her term would be “very difficult” because of a lack of public trust in her. “It’s not about capability, but confidence. And power.”