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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong leader withdraws extradition bill

Carrie Lam bows to one protester demand, but critics say 'too little, too late'

People walk past a big screen replaying Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announcing the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill on Sept. 4.   © Getty Images

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday formally withdrew a controversial extradition bill that has been at the center of massive demonstrations this summer, bowing to one of five demands made by protesters.

In a recorded address broadcast on television on Wednesday evening, Lam also made three other proposals. She suggested appointing two new members to the Independent Police Complaints Council, sending officials into society to listen to people's views and inviting academics and others to conduct independent studies on resolving the situation.

"Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people," Lam said in her TV address. "We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times."

Besides withdrawing the extradition bill, Lam's proposals are not part of the protesters' demands. Protesters are demanding Lam's resignation and the introduction of universal suffrage, rescinding the characterization of protesters as rioters, unconditional release of arrested demonstrators, and creation of an independent commission to investigate complaints of excessive use of force by the police.

Lam specifically rejected the demand of dropping charges against arrested protesters. "I have explained that this is contrary to the rule of law, and is not acceptable," she said, adding that it went against the Basic Law, the de facto constitution of Hong Kong.

While acceding to one demand was viewed by some as an olive branch, government critics say Lam's moves are not enough and insist they will not settle for anything less than the chief executive conceding to all five.

Protesters are vowing to continue their campaign.

Prominent activist Joshua Wong called Lam's withdrawal of the bill "too little and too late."

Wong, a founding member of the pro-democracy group Demosisto and a student leader in the 2014 Occupy Central protests, tweeted shortly before Lam's appearance on TV that the chief executive's "repeated failure in understanding the situation has made this announcement completely out of touch." He reiterated that Lam must address all five of the protesters' demands.

Bonnie Leung, vice-convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, the group that has organized massive rallies over the summer that have drawn what the front estimates as up to 2 million people, said she doubts people will accept just the withdrawal of the bill. "It may calm us down a bit," she said, "but let's see what's to come."

Michael Tien Puk-sun, a pro-Beijing lawmaker in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, told reporters earlier on Wednesday that the withdrawal of the bill would not be enough and "comes too late" to resolve the monthslong standoff.

In comments made before Lam's TV address, Tien called on the government to immediately proceed with an independent inquiry commission to investigate allegations of excessive police force against protesters.

Lam was forced to suspend legislative debate on the bill in mid-June following massive street marches. She has repeatedly declared the bill "dead," but has refused to formally retract the legislation, which would allow for the extradition of people in Hong Kong to mainland China.

A demonstrator is detained by police officers during a protest in Hong Kong on Aug. 31.   © Reuters

Stocks in Hong Kong soared after the reports and the Hong Kong dollar strengthened.

The benchmark Hang Seng Index jumped more than 3.9%, with shares of local retailers and shopping mall operators up nearly 10%. The index slumped 7.4% in August, as the ongoing protests and the U.S.-China trade war weighed on the market.

The Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged within a narrow range to the U.S. dollar, edged 0.04% higher as unconfirmed reports of the bill's withdrawal circulated before Lam's address. Elsa Lignos, global head of foreign exchange strategy for RBC Capital Markets, attributed the currency's strengthening to the reports, but added: "It feels optimistic to assume it will end the protests."

Protesters and police have clashed in often violent demonstrations, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds.

Protests have become almost daily occurrences in Hong Kong since early June. Groups of lawyers, accountants, medical workers and aviation employees also have staged rallies.

Hong Kong's airport, a major regional transport hub, was virtually shut down for several days last month after demonstrators occupied the main terminal, and airlines were forced to cancel hundreds of flights. Protests at or near the airport have continued, despite a court injunction prohibiting people from entering the terminal building.

Nikkei Asian Review deputy editor Zach Coleman, Nikkei staff writer Coco Liu and Benny Kung of Nikkei Markets contributed to this report.

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