Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam is expected to announce a halt in efforts to pass a controversial new extradition law, after a week of mass protests and street violence put heavy pressure on the city’s leaders.
Lam is holding a press conference at 3pm on Saturday to reveal her plans, after meeting with top Chinese officials across the border on Friday night, media outlets, including the South China Morning Post, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong and pro-Beijing Sing Tao newspaper reported.
Another mass demonstration had been called for Sunday, and the government appears to be trying to stave off further major humiliation – and a possible escalation in opposition – by abandoning the law a day earlier.
“[Lam] is buying time for herself and her pro-Beijing pals,” said Kenneth Chan, a professor in the department of government at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Reports suggest she plans only to delay the law, rather than shelve it entirely, probably in the hope that time and further consultations will defuse the power of opposition. With the legislature due to go on summer recess in July, it would not be picked up again until autumn at the earliest.
“The plan aims to reduce turnout at the protest, so the government can wait for a more propitious moment to try again, perhaps after local elections in November, when students will be back at school,” Chan added.
Hong Kong was plunged into crisis by government attempts to ram the law through the territory’s legislature. Hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged the city’s streets this week to oppose it, with police brutality and government intransigence adding to public outrage.
There was also intense international scrutiny, with US presidential hopeful Joe Biden the latest figure to weigh in on the showdown, praising protesters and warning officials that the “world is watching”.
Even a delay to the law would be a major climbdown. Lam has not spoken publicly since Wednesday evening, when she doubled down in defence of the extradition bill and criticised protesters who had endured a day of tear gas, rubber bullets and police beatings as “spoiled children”.
But opposition leaders are worried that the shift is a tactical retreat, aimed at buying time to intimidate or demoralise opponents. There have already been reports of arrests in hospitals as people sought treatment, and of digital activists.
“I think the government is trying to defuse the movement,” said Baggio Leung, an activist and politician who was barred from taking up a seat in the legislature after holding up a sign saying “Hong Kong is not a part of China”.
He added that said the protest on Sunday would go ahead, and the movement continue until the extradition law was permanently taken off the table, but was worried about the chilling effect of mass prosecutions.
“We are calling for no extradition bill and no prosecution,” he said. “We fear they will prosecute a lot of protesters, maybe even a few hundred, to try and scare the people.”
Opponents of the law say it would fatally undermine Hong Kong’s economy and way of life by allowing both residents and visitors to be sent to China for trial in opaque courts controlled by the Communist party.
On Friday night Biden paid tribute on Twitter to the “extraordinary bravery” of protesters. “The world is watching. All of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.”
Lam and officials in Beijing appear to have decided the political cost of temporary retreat would be less than that of further confrontation.
Lam met one of China’s most senior politicians, Han Zheng, in the Chinese border city of Shenzhen on Friday night to discuss the situation, the pro-Beijing Sing Tao reported. Zheng is the central government’s point man on Hong Kong, a vice-premier and one of just seven members of the elite politburo standing committee.
Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving assets abroad, Reuters reported on Friday, amid concern about the extradition law. It cited financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the transactions.