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Hong Kong protests

China backs down on Hong Kong extradition bill ahead of G-20

Xi seeks to control optics before meeting world leaders

Members of Civil Human Rights Front hold a news conference in response to the announcement by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam regarding the proposed extradition bill, outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, Jun.15.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- A controversial bill that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China has been delayed for now, as opposition spread like wildfire among the city's residents, corporations and on the international stage.

But while Chinese President Xi Jinping looks to contain the situation before he attends the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan later this month, activists could be emboldened to double down on demands that the bill be canceled altogether after their initial victory.

"I have to admit that our explanation and communication work has not been sufficient or effective," Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a news conference Saturday.

Lam was likely not expecting the breadth of opposition to the controversial bill. Many Hong Kongers, who are used to a justice system based on the British model, are wary of China's Communist Party-controlled prosecutors and courts.

The bill quickly ignited concerns that Hong Kong could lose its judicial independence, leading to the collapse of the "one country, two systems" policy that gives the city significant autonomy from mainland China.

Lam had previously attempted to push the bill through as planned even after demonstrations attended by one million people, organizers say, on June 9. The Legislative Council said it would vote ahead of schedule on Thursday, which drew further ire from opponents.

The forceful police response to protests further hurt Lam's cause. Rubber bullets and 150 rounds of tear gas were used to disperse the crowd, as authorities sought to prevent a repeat of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, in which pro-democracy students blocked thoroughfares for weeks. More than 80 people were hospitalized in the crackdown.

Beijing blamed foreign forces for inciting the demonstrations. But while it supports the extradition bill, experts believe it is not as invested as it was in Hong Kong's election reforms that triggered the 2014 movement.

The media "portrayed the story as the Hong Kong government making this amendment at the instruction of [China's] Central Government," Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the U.K. said in an interview with the BBC. "As a matter of fact, the Central Government gave no instruction, no order about making amendment."

"Carrie Lam misjudged the situation," a diplomatic source in Hong Kong said.

Meanwhile, American lawmakers debated whether the U.S. should reconsider the special trade privileges it grants Hong Kong, which assume that the city has a high degree of autonomy from the mainland. About 1,300 American companies have bases in Hong Kong, and Beijing worries that Washington is using its strong economic ties to the city as a diplomatic tool.

The political situation in Hong Kong has also shown signs of influence in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen, who wants to maintain a clear division between the island and the mainland, on Thursday was officially chosen as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's nominee in the next presidential race. Opposition candidate Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn, the top iPhone assembler traded as Hon Hai Precision Industry, also threw his support behind the protesters, saying he had decided "that 'one country, two systems' has failed in Hong Kong," according to media reports.

With pressure mounting from all sides, Beijing decided the best course of action was to support delaying the bill. It likely wanted to put an end to the situation before the G-20.

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng, Beijing's point man on Hong Kong, summoned Lam to Shenzhen to discuss next steps, Hong Kong media reported.

"I think it is impossible to discuss [the bill] under such confrontation," said Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Lam, on Friday.

The mainland's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said it supports Lam for postponing the bill, citing the chance to seek feedback from a wide range of actors and restore order.

Pro-democracy groups faced increased pressure in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement. Many younger protesters, including middle and high school students, participated in the latest demonstrations.

Hong Kong's pro-democracy groups want the bill scrapped completely, meaning protests and other pushback could drag on. Lam's decision to delay the bill could also encourage greater activism against other pro-Beijing policies as well.

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