Former chief executive Carrie Lam has defended her attempt to amend a controversial extradition bill in 2019 as a “correct” move, even though it was widely blamed for triggering Hong Kong’s largest protests in decades.

Carrie Lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam met the press on June 17. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

In her first media interview since she stepped down in July, Lam told Chinese state-affiliated Nanfang Daily Newspaper that the extradition bid might not have been the sole cause of the sometimes violent months-long protests.

“I still believe introducing the amendments back then – to fulfil an international duty and to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives – was correct,” she said. The demonstrations may have been “unavoidable,” she added, citing various “negative elements.”

democrats extradition protest
Pro-democracy lawmakers speaking to reporters about their opposition of the extradition law amendment. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“Because at that time, we had not established a system that safeguarded national security. Our national education was not done properly. There were also foreign forces meddling with Hong Kong’s affairs… Some lawmakers even called for foreign sanctions against Hong Kong, destroying Hong Kong’s political system. Adding up all these negative elements, a rather intense confrontation or conflict was perhaps unavoidable.”

A sweeping national security bill imposed by Beijing in June 2020 criminalised many forms of dissent, according to its critics. Supporters say it restored order to the city.

Controversial amendment bill

The government proposed amending the extradition bill in February 2019, after a Hong Kong man named Chan Tong-kai allegedly killed his girlfriend in Taiwan and fled back to Hong Kong. Since the two places do not have an extradition arrangement, Chan could not be sent back for trial.

Chan Tong-kai Taiwan murder suspect released prison "October 23"
Chan Tong-kai is released from prison on October 23.

Authorities at the time said the amendments were necessary to plug such loopholes.

Opponents expressed concern the central government could use the amended bill to send Hong Kong residents, especially dissidents, back to the mainland for trial and punishment.

may james china extradition June 9 march best of
June 9, 2019. Photo: May James.

Protests erupted in June 2019 and escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment into the city’s autonomy.

The government finally withdrew the bill in October but protests continued. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

september 29 protest china extradition (26) (Copy)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Lam was criticised for her handling of the controversy and blamed for sparking Hong Kong’s biggest political crisis. In the interview, she said she understood some people may have questioned her ability, but thanked Beijing for having faith in her and supporting her government when needed.

Promote One Country, Two Systems

Lam said she had witnessed the success of China’s One Country, Two Systems principle governing Hong Kong during her career as a civil servant, which spanned more than four decades starting in the British colonial era. She described the five years when she was at the helm as “an in-depth exploration of the implementation of One Country, Two Systems,” accompanied by political and legal challenges.

China Hong Kong flag Central Government Offices
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Asked about her future plans, Lam said she hoped to further promote One Country, Two Systems, not only to Hongkongers, but also to mainland residents and the people of Taiwan. She said she would like to give lectures on the topic at universities on the mainland.

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.