Chinese, left, and Hong Kong flags are displayed outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong, China, Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. A week into demonstrations in Hong Kong notable for their order and endurance, protesters came under attack from opponents, highlighting the fault lines of a city torn between commercial interests and a desire for greater democracy. Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Hong Kong CNN —  

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that a controversial extradition bill which spurred weeks of protest “is dead” – but stopped short of a formal withdrawal.

Lam admitted the legislative process had been a “complete failure” and said there was “no such plan” to restart debates over the bill, which critics fear could be used to target dissidents in Hong Kong for prosecution in China.

The bill was suspended on June 18.

“On the 18th of June, I expressed my sincere apology,” she said. “The cause of these grievances are caused by the government. There are still lingering doubts about whether the government will restart the bill. There is no such plan. The bill is dead.”

While her language Tuesday was stronger, Lam’s position on the bill has not shifted since last month. After the bill was suspended, it was always going to die when the current parliament expires in summer 2020, along with all other outstanding legislation.

Protests are demanding an immediate and full withdrawal, guaranteeing that lawmakers couldn’t restart debates and rush the bill through to a vote.

Lam’s failure to announce that withdrawal Tuesday is unlikely to stop the mass marches that have disrupted the city in recent weeks.

04:16 - Source: CNN
How peaceful protests in Hong Kong turned into chaos

Some of those protests have turned violent. On July 1, hundreds of mostly young demonstrators stormed the city’s legislature, vandalizing much of it and occupying it for several hours before retreating in the face of a police clearance.

Since then, protests have targeted other parts of Hong Kong in an attempt to bring the anti-extradition bill message – and additional demands for Lam’s resignation and greater democracy – to a wider audience, including visitors to the city from mainland China.

Lam referenced several of those demands Tuesday, but not in a way likely to satisfy her critics. She said it was up to the Secretary for Justice whether to release arrested protesters and refused to call for an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality, instead promising that an existing police watchdog would fulfill this role.

As for resigning, she said stepping down from the role of chief executive “is not a simple task.”

“I still have the passion to govern Hong Kong,” Lam said. “I ask for Hong Kong people to give me the chance to continue to serve.”

It is unlikely that Lam’s resignation would bring stability to the city, as Beijing’s influence over the method of selecting the chief executive has previously led to major protests.

Hong Kong’s leader is chosen from candidates selected by a Beijing-dominated election committee and not freely elected by the people, a situation which sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests.

How a ‘dead’ bill might come back to life

Announcing that a bill is “dead” might sound final. But Lam’s claim was blasted as “another ridiculous lie” by pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong on Twitter.

Wong said the only “proper way for Mrs Lam to ‘kill’ the bill is to invoke article 64 of the Rules and Procedures (of the Legislative Council), to FORMALLY WITHDRAW the bill.”

This is not just semantics.

For a bill to become law in Hong Kong it must go through three readings, the second of which is the most important. That is when lawmakers debate the bill and it is referred to a relevant committee for greater scrutiny. The third reading – like the first – is more of a formality and can happen on the same day as the final stage of the second reading.

Without a formal withdrawal, the government – no matter how “dead” it says the bill is – could at any time resume the legislative process at the second reading stage, where it is halted.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong singer Denise Ho attends a press conference after addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 8, 2019.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-democracy Hong Kong singer Denise Ho attends a press conference after addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 8, 2019.

From there, the bill could be fast tracked into law before protesters have time to mobilize.

And with Hong Kong’s legislative building currently closed for repairs, after protesters stormed and vandalized it on July 1, that process could happen at another, less-public location at short notice.

Lam’s reassurance this will not happen means little to an opposition movement that doesn’t trust her.

If the bill is formally withdrawn, however, its passage to law goes back to square one, giving protesters more time to oppose it were it to be resurrected.

Rights ‘under attack’

On Monday, Hong Kong activist and pop star Denise Ho clashed with a Chinese representative to the United Nations as she called on the international community to stand up for Hong Kong’s democratic rights.

Ho told the UN Commission for Human Rights in Geneva that China had reneged on the commitments it made when it took control of Hong Kong in 1997, echoing the concerns of millions of Hong Kongers who have joined recent mass protests.

“The Vienna Declaration guarantees democracy and human rights. Yet in Hong Kong, these are under serious attack,” Ho said.

China’s delegation interrupted Ho’s speech twice by raising procedural motions. First, it accused Ho of violating the UN constitution by referring to Hong Kong as a country rather than a part of China and asked that she use “wordings that conform with UN rules.”

The Chinese diplomat used the second motion to accuse Ho of “baselessly” attacking the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which the city is governed.

Ho ended her speech by asking the UN to convene an urgent session to “protect the people of Hong Kong” and remove China from the UN Human Rights Council.