By James Pomfret and Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Cracks appeared on Friday in the support base for a proposed Hong Kong law to allow extraditions to China, and opponents of the bill said they would stage more demonstrations after hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week.
The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling in the city, has many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.
Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered the former British colony’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal. The agreement guarantees Hong Kong’s special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
Many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.
The extradition bill has so spooked some in Hong Kong that some of the territory’s tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.
On Friday, one of the key advisers to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, Executive Council member Bernard Chan, told Cable TV he did not think formal discussion of the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the legislature, should continue at present.
“Do we consult, strengthen the bill, or what? Is there still any chance of the bill passing? These are all factors the government must consider,” he said.
“But I definitely say that right now it’s not possible – at a time when there are such intense divisions – to keep discussing this issue. The difficulty is very high.”
Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, urged the city government to put the bill on hold.
And 22 former government officials or Legislative Council members, including former security secretary Peter Lai Hing-ling, signed a statement calling on Lam to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the Bill for more thorough deliberation”.
“It is time for Hong Kong to have a cool-down period,” Lai told Reuters. “Let frayed tempers settle before we resume discussion of this controversial issue. Please, no more blood-letting!”
Beijing-backed Lam has stood by the bill, saying it is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said Hong Kong courts would safeguard human rights.
Lam has not appeared in public or commented since Wednesday.
China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, has rejected accusations of undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. Beijing has pointed a finger at foreign governments for supporting the demonstrators.
On Friday Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing to lodge a protest against recent U.S. comments and actions on Hong Kong and the extradition law. He urged Washington to stop interfering in the city’s affairs immediately.
“We urge the U.S. side to treat the Hong Kong government objectively and fairly and respect its normal legislative process,” the statement cited Le as saying.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Hong Kong matters were an internal affair for China and nobody had a right to interfere.
“Any vain plots to cause chaos in Hong Kong or to damage Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability will be resolutely opposed by the whole people of China including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots,” he said. “This does not enjoy popular support and will not succeed.”
The proposed bill has thrown Hong Kong, a city of about 7 million people, into turmoil, starting on Sunday with a march that drew what organizers said was more than a million people.
Tens of thousands demonstrated in the following days. On Wednesday, protesters surrounded the legislature and swarmed on to a major highway, before being forced back by riot police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.
On Friday, police kept a close watch as the city returned to normal, with most protesters retreating and businesses re-opening. But further demonstrations are planned.
Organizers have urged people to take to the streets on Sunday and protesters have applied for a permit to gather on Monday, when legislators may reconvene to discuss the bill. The Confederation of Trade Unions and Professional Teachers Union called for a citywide strike.
A few dozen demonstrators clustered throughout the day on Friday near the legislature, which had been scheduled to debate the bill this week.
“Everyone is planning for a big march on Sunday like last week but no one knows what will happen at night or after,” said a woman surnamed Chan, who was helping at a makeshift first aid and supply station.
In the evening, hundreds of people loosely affiliated with a group that calls itself ‘Hong Kong Mothers’ assembled peacefully to show their opposition to the proposed legislation.
Police have made more than a dozen arrests, some in hospitals and university campuses, while scores were wounded in the clashes.
In the United States, senior congressional lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to require an annual justification from the U.S. government for the continuation of special business and trade privileges to Hong Kong. China called on the United States not to pass such legislation.
The hawkish Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, lambasted foreign leaders for being hypocrites and said their failure to condemn violent demonstrators was “a stark provocation”.
(Writing by John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Sijia Jiang, Sumeet Chatterjee, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Greg Torode and Felix Tam and in HONG KONG, David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)