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Scrapping Charge’first step’ to easing unrest, says Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her decision to scrap extradition legislation was only the “first step” to addressing the city’s unrest, but resisted protesters’ calls to immediately meet the rest of their demands.

Lam told a news conference Thursday that her decision to formally withdraw the controversial bill allowing extraditions to China and other moves would only be the “first step to break the deadlock in society.” The legislation sparked almost three months of historic protests and its withdrawal has been a key demand of demonstrators through increasingly violent clashes with police.

“It’s obvious to many of us the discontentment in society extends far beyond the bill,” Lam said, citing political, economic and social issues including housing and land supply. “We can discuss all these deep-seated issues in our dialogue platform to be established.”

Lam said the decision to scrap the bill was hers and not made in Beijing, although she added that Chinese authorities backed the move. “They supported me all the way,” she said.

Although withdrawal is the most significant concession Lam’s embattled administration has made, it’s unlikely to end the turmoil that has engulfed the Asian financial hub for months. The protests have since expanded well beyond the bill, and previous attempts by Lam to placate protesters have been met with suspicion and anger.

Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers dismissed Lam’s concession as “too little, too late” and still want their remaining major demands met, including an independent inquiry into aggressive police tactics and a push to nominate and elect their own leaders — a proposal Beijing has ruled out. They predicted that protests would continue, with another “stress test” planned for transportation networks around the city’s airport planned for Saturday.

While investors reacted positively Wednesday, giving the local benchmark Hang Seng Index its biggest gain in 10 months, many analysts saw the jump as a temporary bounce for a market that has been battered in recent months. The MSCI Hong Kong Index slipped 0.7% as of midday Thursday in local trading.

Lam’s concession Wednesday came days after one of the worst weekends of violence Hong Kong has seen since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, as protesters hurled around 100 Molotov cocktails and set a massive roadblock on fire in the city center. Police responded by deploying water cannons, firing numerous volleys of tear gas and pursuing protesters onto subway cars, swinging batons and making numerous arrests.

Lam disputed that the bill’s withdrawal represented a “change of mind,” noting that she had already declared the legislation “dead.” Withdrawing it “doesn’t make a difference in substance,” she said.

Increasingly aggressive police tactics, supported by both Lam and Beijing’s top body overseeing Hong Kong, have helped fuel more rallies and marches, including some that have disrupted the city’s subway network and shut down its busy international airport.

Protesters’ next moves will telegraph whether Lam and her backers on the mainland bet correctly that conceding on the bill’s withdrawal will calm the movement after three months of outcry over Beijing’s increasing grip over the city. Students and other groups staged small peaceful protests Thursday morning to express disappointment with Lam’s speech.

“The content of her speech announcing what she did announce is just too unacceptable,” lawmaker Claudia Mo, who has been an active presence in the protest movement, told Bloomberg TV before Lam’s briefing. “She kept blaming the young in Hong Kong for conducting what she called violence. But she wouldn’t talk about, she wouldn’t even mention police brutality, which has been so abundant and so transparent and obvious.”