Hong Kong government reportedly set to suspend China extradition bill after mass protests

Protesters occupy a main road and walkways during a rally against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.

Paul Yeung | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Hong Kong government is set to suspend a contentious proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China after mass protests and street clashes shook the Asian financial hub in the past week, local media reported on Saturday.

The proposed bill, calling for Hong Kong to make legal amendments to allow accused criminals to be extradited to jurisdictions with which it has no such arrangement — including China — has led to widespread opposition in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory of 7.4 million people.

Public service broadcaster RTHK cited an unidentified source as saying the the government has decided to “suspend” the plan, adding that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the territory’s top official, would meet Saturday with pro-government legislators before holding the press briefing. The South China Morning Post carried a similar report that a pause was likely to be decided as early as Saturday.

The government announced in a statement on Saturday afternoon that Lam will hold a press conference at 3 p.m. HK/SIN the same day.

Shirley Lee, a government spokesperson, could not confirm the reports when contacted by CNBC for comment.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest on June 9 and another mass rally has been planned for Sunday.

‘Blatant, organized riot’

On Wednesday police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who gathered near the local legislature where lawmakers were supposed to debate the plan with scores suffering injuries.

Lam, the territory’s top official, has been defiant, vowing that the plan must proceed and condemning Wednesday’s demonstrations, calling them a “blatant, organized riot, and in no way an act of loving Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong citizens, who enjoy a legal system independent from the rest of China, fear the plan could threaten those judicial protections and their broader autonomy — legacies of its time as a British colony.

Hong Kong has for nearly 22 years been a semi-autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China with its own legal system and currency.

While the territory was guaranteed a high degree of control over its own affairs for at least 50 years under a “one country, two systems arrangement” after Britain ceded sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997, local unease over increasing mainland influence has steadily grown.

Foreign business groups and governments have come out against the plan amid concerns that any erosion to Hong Kong’s legal system could make it a less attractive place for banks and companies to operate.

It is not clear whether a suspension or delay in the plan would satisfy opponents, who have demanded it be scrapped and that Lam resign.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor,(Right) Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive and her new cabinet are sworn in by Chinese President Xi Jinping during an inauguration ceremony in Hong Kong

Keith Tsuji | Getty Images

The government says the legislation is necessary to close a legal “gap” that prevents it from extraditing a local man to Taiwan for allegedly killing his girlfriend while on a visit there last year.

It wants to amend the law to that effect, but the focus of concern is that it would also apply to China. The government insists there are strong safeguards, including those that will prevent human rights abuses, and says no one would be extradited for political purposes.

Lam categorically denied Monday in remarks to reporters the idea that the legal changes were proposed by the central government in Beijing. China is on record as backing the plan, though it has dismissed concerns it wants to water down Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms have been fully guaranteed,” Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a regular briefing Wednesday in Beijing.

— CNBC’s Vivian Kam contributed to this report.

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