Protests in the semi-autonomous territory against sending criminals to mainland China began in March but snowballed in June and have since evolved into a push for greater democracy.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media during her weekly press conference in Hong Kong on September 3, 2019.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media during her weekly press conference in Hong Kong on September 3, 2019. (AFP)

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday announced the formal withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into its worst political crisis in decades.

The bill, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, triggered months of unrest and posed the gravest challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

But Lam said in a pre-recorded television message on Wednesday that the government would not accept other demands, including an independent enquiry into alleged police misconduct against protesters.

However, she named two new members to a police watchdog agency investigating the matter.

Protesters have also called for the release of those detained without charges, but Lam said this was unacceptable.

Her announcement on Wednesday came just two days after Reuters revealed that Lam told business leaders last week she had caused "unforgivable havoc" by introducing the bill.

If she had a choice she would apologise and resign, according to a leaked audio recording.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now had "very limited" room to resolve the crisis because the unrest had become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

Lam's remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing were effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis.

The protests against the bill in the former British colony began in March but snowballed in June and have since evolved into a push for greater democratic rights.

The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

Police members stand guard as people protest at Yuen Long MTR station, the scene of an attack by suspected triad gang members a month ago, in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China. August 21, 2019.
Police members stand guard as people protest at Yuen Long MTR station, the scene of an attack by suspected triad gang members a month ago, in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China. August 21, 2019. (Reuters)

Will pulling the bill pull the plug on protests?

It was not immediately clear if the announcement of the bill's withdrawal would help end the unrest. The immediate reaction appeared sceptical and muted and the real gauge will be how many people take to the streets.

Many are furious at perceived police brutality and the number of arrests – 1,183 at the latest count – and want an independent inquiry.

"This won't appease the protesters," Boris Chen, 37 who works in financial services, said. "In any kind of time, people will find something they can get angry about."

Pearl, 69, said the protests were no longer about the bill.

"Some of those guys may change their minds, maybe, but just a minority," she said of the protesters. "Some of them just want to create trouble and they will continue to do so."

Jessica, 23, a student, said the decision showed the protest efforts had been worthwhile.

"Even though it's not the result we expected, I believe that this issue has made Hong Kong more united."

Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng index jumped 3.9 percent on news of plans for the withdrawal, which Lam confirmed after markets closed. The protests have disrupted travel, adding to pressure from weakening global trade.

Remaining demands

The withdrawal of the draft legislation was one of the protesters' key demands. 

The other demands are: the retraction of the word "riot" to describe rallies, the release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent enquiry into the police perceived brutality and the right for Hong Kong people to democratically choose their own leaders.

Earlier, Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, said the government should withdraw the bill and that he would support an inquiry commission.

"If the government mentioned (a withdrawal) in June it would have stopped already," he told reporters, referring to the protests.

Demonstrators react after police fired tear gas during a protest in Hong Kong, China. August 31, 2019.
Demonstrators react after police fired tear gas during a protest in Hong Kong, China. August 31, 2019. (Reuters)

China's warnings

Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, like the freedom to protest and an independent legal system, hence the anger at the extradition bill and perceived creeping influence by Beijing.

China has regularly denounced the protests and warned about the impact on Hong Kong's economy

China denies it is meddling in Hong Kong's affairs but warned again on Tuesday that it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.

The unrest had shown no sign of easing by Tuesday night.

Riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray – both anti-riot weapons – to clear demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one man taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.

Videos showing the man being apprehended by the police in the station have been widely shared on social media with protest groups and activists saying it is evidence of the police brutality they say is widespread and needs to be investigated.

The police, who have repeatedly denied using excessive force, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hong Kong police are due to hold a news conference at 4 pm local time (0800 GMT).

Three men, aged between 21 and 42, were taken to Kwong Wa Hospital late on Tuesday, a hospital authority spokeswoman said.

Two, including the man stretchered out of Prince Edward station, were in a stable condition and one had been discharged, she said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies