HONG KONG -- Signs of weakening support for the Hong Kong government's controversial extradition bill emerged on Friday, as some pro-establishment officials suggested the administration should indefinitely postpone legislative debate following violent clashes this week between police and protesters.
Bernard Chan, a leading member of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's cabinet, said that it was "impossible" to proceed with debate on the proposed law. Chan, a financier and the convener of Lam's Executive Council, told public broadcaster RTHK that officials need to think about what to do next.
"My personal opinion is that it's impossible to continue to discuss the proposal when the opposition is so fierce," he said. "The government must not exacerbate the opposition in these few days," Chan said, adding that it should instead work on how to calm the public. "I really don't want to see more clashes."
Another member of the Executive Council, lawyer Ronny Tong, told RTHK that the administration should consider "all possible plans" to amend the law. Tong said he "would not object" if the government decides to put the bill on hold, and he urged government officials to meet with opponents of the legislation to work out a plan that is acceptable to both sides.
Despite an estimated 1 million residents marching in protest against the bill last Sunday, the government planned to move ahead with legislative action on the bill this past Wednesday. That plan was derailed when protesters surrounded the complex of the Legislative Council, or Hong Kong's parliament, effectively preventing legislators from reaching the building.
The police later cleared out the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber bullets and other riot gear. More than 80 demonstrators and police were injured, authorities said. Anticipating further clashes, the president of the legislature announced its closure for Thursday and Friday but did not alter his previous time line of calling a vote on the bill for June 20.
Steve Vickers, a former senior police official, commented in a note to clients of his risk advisory company late Friday that some elements of the pro-Beijing establishment are "wavering" in their support, with momentum for the bill "stalled."
"That said, Lam seems determined to pass the law, as does the Chinese central government," Vickers wrote, predicting protests would continue.
Indeed, protest organizers have continued to plan for demonstrations on Sunday and Monday.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien said in a Facebook post on Friday that he hopes the government will put the bill on hold as the proposal has created widespread anxiety among Hong Kong citizens.
"I hope the government would postpone the discussions in the current legislative session, and come up with a less controversial plan at an appropriate time after re-consultation," he wrote.
Tien said there is no urgency for rushing through the legislation, as the Taiwanese government has clearly stated that it will not request the extradition of the alleged Hong Kong suspect if the bill is passed.
The pending bill would facilitate the sending of criminal suspects to places that do not have bilateral extradition agreements with Hong Kong. Only around 20 governments have signed such pacts with Hong Kong. Most significantly, Hong Kong has no agreement with mainland China, Macao or Taiwan.
The government has cited the need for a Hong Kong man who allegedly killed another city resident in Taiwan to face justice as justification for the bill. But many residents worry the bill would open the door for Chinese officials to seek out anyone working in or traveling through Hong Kong on trumped up evidence.
Chan, president of Asia Financial Holdings and a deputy to China's National People's Congress, told RTHK that it was important the legislature not be derailed by the bill controversy since it had many other important matters to address. While pro-government politicians had stayed united behind Lam's push a quick vote on the bill, at least two other members of the Executive Council had in earlier weeks said the government should consider potential changes to the plan.
In reaction to Chan's comment, Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official now with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, wrote on Twitter: "Big admission by HK gov't the extradition bill is dead. Is this foreshadowing Carrie Lam being thrown under the bus?"