HONG KONG (Reuters) – China doubled down on its support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday after days of protests in the Chinese-ruled city over a planned extradition bill, and a source close to Lam said Beijing was unlikely to let her go even if she tried to resign.
Lam’s attempts to pass a bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China to stand trial triggered the biggest and most violent protests in the former British colony in decades.
As the political crisis entered its second week, demonstrators and opposition politicians braved intermittent rain to gather near the government’s offices and call for the bill to be killed and for her to step down.
The upheaval comes at a delicate time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is grappling with a deepening U.S. trade war, an ebbing economy and regional strategic tension.
Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula since its return to Beijing in 1997, allowing freedoms not granted to the mainland, including an independent judiciary, but short of a fully democratic vote.
Many residents are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip and what they see as the erosion of those freedoms, fearing that changes to the rule of law could imperil its status as a global financial center.
“The Chinese government, the central government, has always fully affirmed the work of chief executive Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong government,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news conference.
The comments echoed remarks over the weekend from the government’s Hong Kong and Macau policy office.
“The central government will continue to firmly support the chief executive and the SAR government’s governing in accordance with the law,” he said, referring to the “special administrative region” of China.
Protest organizers said almost two million people – out of Hong Kong’s population of around seven million – turned out on Sunday to demand that Lam resign, in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since 1997.
The mass rally, which police said drew 338,000 participants at its peak, forced Lam to apologize over her plans to push through the bill.
On Monday, protesters near the government’s offices blocked roads and called for Lam to withdraw the bill, release arrested students, drop the official description of a rally on Wednesday that involved clashes with the police as a riot, and step down.
A senior Hong Kong official close to the Beijing-backed Lam told Reuters on Monday Beijing was not likely to let her step down, even if she wanted to, saying “it would create more sorts of problems than it solves, at all sorts of levels”.
Lam stopped short of explicitly killing the bill, but the official said the postponement meant that it was effectively dead.
Still, many in Hong Kong are unhappy at the prospect of legislation that lawyers and judges say risks exposing people to the mercy of a mainland justice system plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention.
The bill would cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city.
“We cannot accept her apology, it doesn’t remove all our threats,” said social worker Brian Chau, one of several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.
In a coincidence of timing, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, the face of the city’s push for full democracy, walked free from prison on Monday and vowed to join the mass protest movement.
“I will join to fight against this evil law,” said Wong, 22, one of the leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella” pro-democracy protests that blocked major roads in Hong Kong for 79 days.
“I believe this is the time for her, Carrie Lam the liar, to step down.”
Two former post-colonial leaders, Tung Chee-Hwa and Leung Chun-ying, were forced to cut short their time in office amid controversies linked to policies that stoked fears of Chinese encroachment on the city’s freedoms.
The latest crisis escalated during Wong’s five-week jail term for contempt of court. Until this month, the failure of the Umbrella protests to wrest concessions from Beijing, coupled with prosecutions of at least 100 protesters, had discouraged many young people from going back out on the streets.
But Lam’s efforts to ram through the proposed extradition bill galvanized opposition.
On Monday, the benchmark index climbed 0.4%, having risen more than 1% in early trade, outperforming gains in Asia ex-Japan and onshore China. Most tenors in interbank lending rates shortened, after a spike last week during the protests.
The city’s “highly leveraged property owners are breathing a collective sigh of relief, and the Hang Sang is in a celebratory mood as well”, Stephen Innes, managing partner at Vanguard Markets, said in a note.
Hong Kong opposition politicians echoed marchers’ calls for both Lam and the proposed law to go.
“Her government cannot be an effective government, and will have much, much, much difficulties to carry on,” veteran Democratic Party legislator James To told government-funded broadcaster RTHK.
“I believe the central people’s government will accept her resignation.”
Some demonstrators cleared rubbish left after the vast, but peaceful, march while others sang ‘Hallelujah’, the unofficial anthem of protests against Lam.
U.S. President Donald Trump would likely raise the issue of Hong Kong human rights with China’s Xi at a potential meeting of the two leaders at the G20 summit in Japan next week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will raise the protests with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who is on a visit to London to boost economic and financial cooperation, May’s spokesman said.
Additional reporting by Marius Zaharia, Farah Master, Vimvam Tong, Anne Marie Roantree, Noah Sin and Greg Torode in HONG KONG, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and William James in LONDON; Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Nick Macfie