A year ago on – September 4 – Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced she would formally withdraw an ill-fated extradition bill which had sparked months of unprecedented turmoil and mass protests in the city.
The bill, originally touted as an effort to fix “legal loopholes” in the city’s extradition laws, would have allowed the transfer of suspected offenders to places including mainland China, whose courts are often criticised as opaque and lacking judicial independence.
Opposition lawmakers slammed Lam’s move to withdraw the bill as “too little, too late” and protests continued unabated. Demonstrators’ demands broadened to include calls for greater democracy and an inquiry into alleged police brutality. On the first anniversary of Lam’s announcement, HKFP revisits how the embattled leader responded to the city’s worst political crisis in decades, and how her tone changed over the months.
April 29, 2019: A day after thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets to oppose the planned extradition law, Lam told reporters she was committed to the “not easy task” of getting the bill passed by the Legislative Council (LegCo).
“At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves whether we will continue to tolerate this loophole in our system on the return of fugitive offenders, to the extent that we will be making Hong Kong a haven for all these offenders of serious crimes from all over the world.”
April 30: Asked if she would meet pro-democracy legislators on the issue, Lam said: “[I]f the meeting’s main purpose is to pressurise me to withdraw the bill, then there is no purpose for that sort of meetings.”
June 9: More than one million people marched in opposition to the bill, according to the rally organiser the Civil Human Rights Front. The government said the protest showed how people were able to exercise freedom of expression, but the second reading of the bill would go ahead as planned.
June 11: Lam told reporters the government was doing “very responsible work for society” by introducing the bill. She also said as a mother of two children, she did not want to see young people being affected by “radical acts.”
“They are so young and their future may get affected by politicised events targeting [the bill]. No one wants to see that,” Lam said.
June 12: Hong Kong police used rubber bullets, bean bags and tear gas to clear thousands of protesters who occupied roads around LegCo and government headquarters in Admiralty district.
In a televised address the chief executive described the clashes between police and protesters as “acts of rioting” that damaged social peace and defied the law. She said such actions were “intolerable” in any civilised society. “Clearly, this is no longer a peaceful assembly but a blatant, organised riot, and in no way an act of loving Hong Kong.”
In an interview with broadcaster TVB the same evening, a tearful Lam rejected criticism that she had “sold out Hong Kong,” saying she had made many personal sacrifices since taking office as chief executive in 2017.
“So, please everyone, you can criticise me, you can curse me, but don’t say I sell out Hong Kong,” she said.
The Hong Kong leader also defended her refusal to yield to protesters’ demands. She said that if she made concessions, it would be similar to tolerating “wilful behaviour” by her children.
June 15: In her first concession Lam announced she was suspending efforts to pass the bill and admitted that the government had not made its case effectively, but refused to formally withdraw it.
She stood by the “laudable objectives” of the bill, which she said was intended to handle the case of murder suspect Chan Tong-kai who was wanted in Taiwan and “rectify” deficiencies in current arrangements.
“With those two objectives in mind, withdrawing the bill seems to suggest that even those two objectives were erroneous in the first place, and I cannot accept that.”
June 16: Hundreds of thousands of people – organisers estimated a turnout of almost two million – staged another protest. Lam in an evening statement apologised to Hongkongers. “The Chief Executive admitted that the deficiencies in the government’s work had led to substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief among the people.”
June 18: The embattled leader offered a “sincere, solemn” personal apology. “I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society.”
July 1: Around 550,000 Hongkongers joined the annual July 1 democracy march on the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover to China, organisers said. In the afternoon, chaotic scenes emerged around the LegCo complex as a group of demonstrators tried to break into the building by ramming glass doors and windows.
Later in the evening, protesters stormed the legislature and spray-painted slogans such as “Carrie Lam step down” and “It was you who taught me peaceful marches did not work.” Some defaced the emblem of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) while others unfurled a British colonial flag.
At a press conference the next day, Lam described their actions as an “extreme use of violence” which would be condemned by most people.
She said one of the protesters’ five demands – granting amnesty for all those arrested – would violate the rule of law.
July 9: Lam declared the controversial bill to be “dead,” but refused to use the word “withdraw.”
“The bill is dead,” Lam said. “People do not have to worry that we should use some means to discuss this bill again within this legislature term.”
July 22: Meeting the press the morning after over 100 rod-wielding men indiscriminately attacked civilians including protesters and commuters at the Yuen Long MTR station, Lam described the beatings as “shocking.”
“Let me make this clear again. Violence is not a solution to any problem. Violence will only breed more violence,” she said.
August 9: At a press conference Lam was asked why her meetings with different sectors of society did not include those who were protesting.
In response, she said: “[A small minority group of people] did not mind destroying Hong Kong’s economy, they have no stake in the society which so many people have helped to build, and that’s why they resort to all this violence and obstructions causing huge damage to the economy and to the daily life of the people.”
September 2: Reuters obtained an audio recording of Lam’s speech to a private meeting of businesspeople. She confessed she had caused “unforgivable havoc” to the city.
“If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology, is to step down. So I make a plea to you for your forgiveness,” Lam said according to a transcript by Reuters.
The following day, Lam said she had never offered her resignation to China’s government and the decision not to do so was her own choice.
September 4: After months of citywide unrest, Lam finally announced she would scrap the bill. “The Fugitive Offenders Bill will be formally withdrawn in order to fully allay public concerns,” she said, expressing hopes her move would lay the foundations for a public dialogue to seek solutions to deep-seated issues in society.
But violence “is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law.”
September 26: The government organised a public dialogue featuring 150 randomly selected citizens, who were each given three minutes to directly address top officials including Lam.
She dismissed criticism the event was a public relations exercise, saying she wanted to listen to people’s voices as she admitted trust in her administration had “fallen off a cliff.”
“The biggest responsibility lies with myself: I won’t shirk the responsibility.”
October 1: On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong demonstrators staged citywide protests to “mourn” National Day. More than 20 MTR stations were closed as skirmishes erupted in multiple districts. A secondary school student was shot by police with a live round during a clash in Tsuen Wan. He survived.
The government issued statements to condemn the “rioting” and backed officers who used their revolvers in response to “escalating violent attacks.”
October 4: The chief executive invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face coverings in a bid to quell the months-long protests.
Lam said the objective “is to end violence and restore order, and I believe this is now the broad consensus of Hong Kong people.”
October 16: Lam in her annual policy address delivered by video accused “rioters” of initiating attacks and sabotage “in an organised and planned manner.”
“They doxxed and beat people holding different views, spreading chaos and fear in Hong Kong and seriously disrupting people’s daily lives.”
She said her government would not tolerate any actions which advocated independence for Hong Kong and threatened China’s sovereignty and security.
November 11: Hong Kong saw a long day of unrest which left several people injured as demonstrators tried to organise a general strike. Police fired several live rounds and one struck a protester in his abdomen in Sai Wan Ho. Demonstrators set a man on fire in Ma On Shan after he argued with protesters. Both survived.
Lam lambasted the arson attack as “malicious” and “inhumane” and said the government would not back down in the face of protesters’ demands.
“If there is still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the Hong Kong SAR Government will yield to pressure to satisfy the so-called political demands, I’m making this statement clear and loud here: That will not happen.”
November 26: Following a landslide victory by pro-democracy candidates in district council elections, in 17 out of 18 seats, Lam said the polls had a greater “political dimension” than in previous years. She refused to comment on whether the extradition saga led to the defeat of the pro-establishment camp.
December 31: Lam visited police headquarters in Wan Chai and thanked the force for its professionalism under “extremely severe conditions” in 2019. She said the force had faced a large number of “fabricated, biased and slanderous remarks” which created more tensions between police and citizens.
She also released a New Year’s message alongside top officials, saying that the situation in Hong Kong had caused sadness, anxiety, disappointment and even rage.
As the chief executive, Lam said she would not shy away from her responsibility: “I will listen humbly to find a way out.”
January 1, 2020: On New Year’s Day, the city saw another huge turnout as Hongkongers hit the streets to call for democracy. The government rejected “grave concerns” expressed in an open letter by 40 parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries.
It said the claims were “biased and misleading” and urged the overseas politicians to “truly understand” the degree of violence involved in the local protests.
The government spokesperson said: “We also understand that Hong Kong is being used as a pawn by some in the West to further their own agendas, based on a one-sided narrative that paints a negative picture of the HKSAR Government’s actions to restore calm and peace while ignoring the ongoing serious threats to law and order by radicals that they would hardly tolerate in their own country.”
January 21: At the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos, the Hong Kong leader alleged there was foreign influence behind the Hong Kong protests, but said she had no conclusive evidence.
In an interview with CNBC, Lam said the demonstrations had attracted “disproportionate commentary” from Western media and foreign governments.
“And I do feel that perhaps there is something at work, although I said there hasn’t been any conclusive evidence, so there is a bigger picture other than the domestic situation.”
May 11: In an interview with state-run newspaper Ta Kung Pao, Lam said students in Hong Kong should be protected from being “poisoned,” as she claimed “false and biased information” had spread on campuses.
Pro-Beijing media and politicians had said school courses such as Liberal Studies were to blame for inciting students to take part in the unrest. Lam said schools and the education authorities should be wary that subjects could be “infiltrated.”
May 15: Standing in front of a screen depicting protest violence and emblazoned with the words “The Truth About Hong Kong,” Lam hailed a 999-page report published by the Independent Police Complaints Council on the behaviour of the force during the months of protest.
She said the report, which largely exonerated the force of misconduct, was “comprehensive, objective, fact-based and weighty.” She agreed with its findings that the months-long protests had “changed its nature,” saying peaceful demonstrations had degenerated into radical actions which plunged Hong Kong into chaos.
“These escalating violent incidents, if not stopped promptly and effectively, will shake the concept of One Country, Two Systems and social stability, pushing Hong Kong into a dark abyss.”