HONG KONG — Backpedaling under mounting pressure, Hong Kong’s top leader publicly apologized on Tuesday for having proposed contentious legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
“I would like to tender my sincere apologies to the citizens of Hong Kong,” the leader, Carrie Lam, said at a news conference at government headquarters. “I have come to understand I could have done better, I should have done a better job.”
Mrs. Lam, who had already announced the extradition bill’s indefinite suspension, did not concede to protesters’ demands that it be withdrawn entirely. But she said that as long as there were public disputes over its contents, legislative work on it would not be resumed.
She also said that she would not resign as Hong Kong’s chief executive, but acknowledged that “as for my governance in the future, it will be difficult.”
Mrs. Lam was trying to strike a difficult balance on Tuesday, showing contrition to protesters without further giving in to their demands. She avoided antagonizing the Chinese leaders who appointed her by taking the blame for the legislation herself, not mentioning Beijing’s support for it. She also tried to express concern for injured protesters without undercutting the Hong Kong police, whose use of force has added to public anger.
About 100 people gathered on Tuesday outside the offices of the central government and listened as Mrs. Lam’s words boomed from a loudspeaker. Many booed as she spoke.
Samuel Chan, an electronics trader, said he did not believe Mrs. Lam was listening to the protesters.
“They are just responding to the issue according to a government mind-set,” said Mr. Chan, 56. “Not the people’s will.”
Mrs. Lam faces broad public anger following three large-scale demonstrations over the past 10 days by protesters fearful that the extradition bill would encroach on their civil liberties. Even after her announcement on Saturday that the legislation was being suspended indefinitely, protesters turned out the next day in larger numbers than ever, with organizers providing an unverified estimate of close to two million of the territory’s seven million residents.
The extradition bill would make it easier for Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, to send people suspected of crimes to jurisdictions with which it does not have extradition agreements. That would include mainland China, where the judicial system is notoriously opaque and under the tight control of the ruling Communist Party.
Opponents worry that if the bill were to become law, anyone in the city could potentially be sent to the mainland, including dissidents.
Sunday evening, the Hong Kong government responded to the march with a conciliatory written statement that ended with a rare apology from Mrs. Lam, who is known for almost never backing down in a fight.
That was not enough to satisfy Mrs. Lam’s critics, many of whom have called for her to withdraw the bill outright and resign. As long as it is merely suspended, experts say, it could be reintroduced at any time in the Hong Kong legislature, which is controlled by pro-Beijing lawmakers.
The Civil Human Rights Front, one of the broader groups that helped organize the recent protests, said in a statement late Monday that it still wanted Mrs. Lam to resign.
A bigger priority for the group, however, is that the government drop all charges against those who were arrested during the protests.
The police have arrested at least 32 people since Wednesday, when a demonstration outside the Hong Kong legislature turned violent. A group of protesters attempting to storm the building threw umbrellas and other objects at the police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The Hong Kong police commissioner, Lo Wai-chung, said on Monday that the government would pursue rioting charges against five people accused of being involved in the violence. Protesters had objected to his earlier characterization of the Wednesday protest as a riot.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Lam did not elaborate on Mr. Lo’s remarks except to say that those who protested peacefully would not face legal action.
Her remarks represented the clearest apology for a major public initiative by any chief executive of Hong Kong since Britain returned sovereignty over the territory to China in 1997. Tung Chee-hwa, the territory’s first chief executive, did not apologize in 2003 when he shelved Beijing-backed national security legislation that would have allowed warrantless police searches and the closing of newspapers deemed seditious.
The extradition fight has been compared to the one under Mr. Tung, who stayed in office for 21 more months but did not finish his term. Those who say Ms. Lam should resign are not willing to wait that long.
“Carrie has apologized but refuses to budge on withdrawing the bill and resigning,” Anson Chan, a democracy advocate who was Hong Kong’s second-highest official until her retirement in 2001, said on Tuesday. “It seems every concession has to be dragged out of her.”
Some democracy activists are quietly nervous about the possibility of a resignation by Mrs. Lam, a lifelong civil servant, because her political heir apparent, Paul Chan, has a reputation for being even more strongly pro-Beijing.
Others are adamant that Mrs. Lam step down. They contend that the Hong Kong public should press for full and free elections rather than accept the current system, in which a pro-Beijing committee of fewer than 1,200 people selects the chief executive.
Protesters made similar demands for open elections five years ago, when they occupied major roadways for almost three months in what is known as the Umbrella Movement. While that movement did not achieve its short-term objectives, it had a major influence on this year’s anti-extradition protests.
Emily Lau, a former chairwoman of the Democratic Party who is still an influential voice on democracy issues, said the politics of Mr. Chan, the financial secretary, should not deter critics from calling for Mrs. Lam’s resignation.
“It would be a disaster to have him as chief executive,” Ms. Lau said. “But we should not say, ‘Because we don’t want Paul Chan, maybe Carrie should stay.’”