HONG KONG – The chief executive of Hong Kong reaffirmed on Monday her backing for a new bill allowing extradition to mainland China that has prompted massive protests, although she said the special administrative region’s government would ensure the protection of suspects’ human rights.
Carrie Lam said in a press conference that the proposed law would include legally-binding safeguards to prevent the jurisdictions asking for extradition from violating the rights of defendants, but she refused to backpedal her government’s push for the controversial bill.
While Lam acknowledged that “a very large number of people” had taken to the streets on Sunday to protest the measure – organizers estimated that over 1 million demonstrators took part, though the police gave a count of 240,000 protesters – she said there were many “opposite views” supporting the new legislation.
However, the protests erupted out of fears that activists and dissidents who live in Hong Kong – a Chinese territory that enjoys special autonomy from Beijing in fields such as free speech laws or currency – could be extradited to mainland China for trial, where they could face political or religious persecution.
“The bill wasn’t initiated by Beijing,” Lam said, adding that the proposal was instead born out of her own government’s “clear conscience and commitment to Hong Kong.”
She also vowed that the regional government would provide regular reports of its implementation to the legislative council, as quoted by state broadcaster RTHK.
According to Lam, it was the government’s responsibility is to accommodate different views and strike a balance between its proponents and detractors.
She added that the recent refinements to the proposal proved the government was listening to the people’s concerns.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government claimed the protests were spurred by “foreign intervention” while supporting the former British colony’s government.
“I would like to stress that the central government will continue to firmly support the Special Administrative Region’s government in the amendment of the two ordinances and we firmly oppose external intervention in Hong Kong’s legislation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said in a press conference on Monday.
“Since the return of Hong Kong (to China by the United Kingdom in 1997), people’s rights and freedoms in Hong Kong are fully protected and guaranteed. This is unquestionable,” Geng added.
The bill, which was first proposed in February, will undergo a second reading in the legislature on Wednesday. The final vote on it is expected sometime in July.
The text would allow the Hong Kong executive and courts to process extradition requests of countries with which the former colony does not have a formal transfer agreement, including mainland China, Taiwan and Macao, without direct legislative supervision.
In theory, local courts would handle cases individually and could use veto powers to block extraditions.
The government maintains that the law, known as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, is necessary to cover a legal vacuum.
The bill has faced staunch opposition from journalists, foreign politicians, non-governmental organizations and companies.
Sunday’s multitudinous protests saw demonstrators gather at Victoria Park, which for several hours became a sea of white – the color chosen for the action – and smatterings of yellow that came from umbrellas, a pro-democracy symbol since the 2014 movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution.”
Protesters chanted slogans such as “Scrap the evil law,” “Oppose China extradition” and “Carrie Lam resign.”
Some told EFE that the bill would erode Hong Kong’s independence from Beijing, while others voiced fears that the law would hurt the region’s economy.
According to police, at least three officers and a journalist were injured during the protests.
During Monday’s press conference, Lam rejected the calls for her resignation and said she had worked tirelessly for the benefit of Hong Kong in the two years since she assumed office.
“I have been the Chief Executive of Hong Kong for about two years, I have spent every moment of my time to work for the benefit of Hong Kong – every aspect,” she said. “It’s not just on improving the justice system, it’s also on pushing Hong Kong’s economic development and addressing livelihood issues like housing and poverty.”