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The extradition bill might be ‘dead’ but in Hong Kong, we cannot afford to back down

On Tuesday morning, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, finally held a press conference in response to the latest protests in the region. Speaking about the controversial extradition law with China that she had tried to ram through the legislative council, she declared: “The bill is dead.”

Such a proclamation may suggest that the government no longer has any intention of passing the law – but this may well prove to be mere words designed to placate Hong Kongers and divert the unwanted attention of the international community.

According to the legislative council’s rules and procedures, the proper way for Lam to give up the legislation is to formally withdraw it and make an announcement during a meeting in that body. Until she does so, she is only provoking more doubts and speculation instead of alleviating public concerns. Being “dead” is otherwise empty rhetoric with no legal meaning.

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One month earlier, on 9 June, the world watched as one million people took to the streets in Hong Kong to march against the bill. The extradition law would have threatened our freedoms by removing the firewall protecting us from Beijing’s political prosecution of dissidents – or anyone deemed an enemy of the state. Only 35 out of 70 legislative council seats are directly elected by the people: this means the pro-Beijing camp consistently holds a majority of seats, so the law seemed almost certain to pass. Lam was forced to acknowledge the protest against her agenda, but insisted a second reading of the bill would take place in three days.

And then the unthinkable happened. Protesters retook Harcourt Road – the landmark main site of the pro-democracy “umbrella movement” in 2014 – outside the legislative council, preventing lawmakers from convening. Facing pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets, we stood our ground. Lam made a compromise to delay the bill, but this only emboldened people, with two million taking to the streets to demonstrate: the single largest protest in our history.

Anything short of a full withdrawal of the hated new law did not, and would not, quell widespread mistrust and anger. Other episodes of civil disobedience followed: the most controversial of these occurred on 1 July, when young men and women stormed into the legislative council complex and read out a statement while occupying the chamber.

Even though this was an aggressive move, with some public property damaged, popular opinion remained optimistic about the peaceful and restrained nature of the movement as a whole. Some commentators labelled the action as violence, but many Hong Kongers see it in another perspective: it demonstrated our sense of helplessness in the face of the government’s hardline rule – and the simple fact that the legislative council has become a tool to facilitate Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s affairs. Occupying the council building was a political statement – not senseless destruction.

Distrust of our government is not spontaneous but has deep roots in Hong Kong. After the umbrella movement ended without winning any concessions toward democratisation, Hong Kong seemed to have disappeared from the international spotlight. But behind the veneer of calm were numerous instances in which our way of life was slowly diminishing. International rankings for rule of law and press freedom have placed Hong Kong lower and lower down the list every year, and democratically elected legislators have been disqualified and demonstrators imprisoned: I have been a victim of both these actions.

The current anti-extradition movement can therefore be considered as retaliation for years of infringements on our freedoms – a massive explosion of public discontent against both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. Many of us, especially younger generations, are determined to keep fighting for the human rights and democracy we all deserve.

Some international reporters have wondered why protests persist now Lam seems to have backed down – in what is widely considered a major setback for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. The simple fact is that people in Hong Kong have been fighting for democracy for almost 40 years, and we have never come so close to forcing our leaders to commit to genuine political reform.

Others have argued that we should back down now that Lam is showing mercy. But this is a facade: she insists on calling protesters “rioters” and rejects calls for an independent investigation into alleged police brutality, while arrests of those who participated in various recent acts of civil disobedience are ongoing. Most importantly, if we stop now, we are only letting future generations down.

What have we gained since the protest last month? Not a lot. In any true democracy, a quarter of the entire population demonstrating on the same day would have been fatal to the political careers of its leaders. Alas, the source of Lam’s power comes not from Hong Kong but from Beijing. So even if the extradition bill is “dead” – we wait to see if it is actually withdrawn – the structural problems that created our present political crisis still exist.

That is why there was a rally last Sunday and why two more are planned this weekend. We shall continue to fight on.

Nathan Law is a politician and activist in Hong Kong, and the founding chair of Demosistō

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