Hong Kong's embattled leader has offered her "most sincere" public apology over her mishandling of a controversial extradition bill, admitting her shortcomings and promising to learn from mistakes, two days after an estimated 2 million people took to the streets in an overwhelming repudiation of her governance.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday admitted she was facing a difficult three years ahead and promised to redouble her government's efforts in healing a divided city, listening to the grievances of alienated young people, and rolling out policies to improve the economy as well as livelihoods.
"I have heard you loud and clear, and have reflected deeply on all that has transpired … I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility," she said in another, more personal attempt to defuse the crisis triggered by her campaign to bulldoze the bill through the legislature.
"This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society. For this I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong."
With her back against the wall after Hongkongers of all ages and from all walks of life marched in peaceful protest last Sunday, demanding her resignation and accusing police of using excessive force during clashes with mostly young demonstrators last Wednesday, Lam presented a picture of remorse and regret.
"The difficulty lies now perhaps not in the matter of ability or competence, but in the trust amongst the people of Hong Kong," she said. "Myself and my team will try our very best to rebuild that trust so that we can continue to implement these social and economic policies."
However, the chief executive again rejected calls to scrap rather than suspend the bill, which would allow the transfer of fugitives to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which the city has no extradition deal. Concerns that Beijing's critics could be victimised across the border under a legal system mistrusted by many Hongkongers haven driven them onto to the streets in mass outpourings of dissent.
Lam on Tuesday insisted her decision was tantamount to withdrawing the bill, as it was most likely to die a natural death because it could not be debated and processed by the Legislative Council before the end of its term in July next year.
"If we do not have that level of confidence to address those anxieties and fears and differences in opinion, we would not proceed with the legislative exercise again," she said.
The chief executive also brushed aside protesters' demands for her resignation. Neither would she promise that police would not charge anyone arrested over the recent mass protests, or agree to launch an independent inquiry into whether frontline officers had used excessive force when they fended off mostly young protesters outside the Legco compound on June 12.
She expressed similar remorse in a letter to civil servants, thanking them for their support and expressing her indebtedness to police in particular.
"I have to emphasise that the deficiencies lie in my less than adequate judgment of the sensitivity of the subject matter and the handling of the process," she wrote.
Business chambers, and pro-establishment politicians and groups welcomed her climbdown, but opposition pan-democrats and protesters watching Lam's 51-minute media session live outside the legislature refused to accept her apology.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the two weekend rallies that drew historic numbers, was unimpressed by Lam's plea for a second chance, saying she had rejected their core demands. The group said it would discuss its next move with the pan-democratic camp on Wednesday.
Her campaign to change the city's extradition laws, and her insistence on bypassing established Legco procedures when her political allies and opponents could not get a bills committee started on scrutinising the amended legislation, has plunged Lam into the worst political crisis since she began her five-year term in July 2017.
Three days after protests outside Legco descended into violence on June 12, Lam announced last Saturday that she would suspend the bill.
But that was not enough to satisfy an estimated 2 million people who poured out into the streets the following day, demanding the chief executive retract the bill and apologise over the conflicts it was causing.
Lam responded with an apology in the form of a written statement, which was rejected as insincere by her critics.
Tuesday's personal apology came with an admission that "deficiencies" in the work of her government over the bill had "led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society".
Lam did not bow in front of the cameras, as some had been speculating or expecting, and there were no tears, but she crafted her words minus her trademark combativeness, which has often been interpreted as arrogance by her critics.
She reached out to the city's youth in particular, saying: "To those young people who participated peacefully (in protests) to express their views, let me say I understand you expect your chief executive to listen to different voices … this incident has made me realise, as the chief executive, I've still got much to learn."
Dismissing relentless calls for her to step down, Lam said she had commitments to meet, starting with new initiatives to develop the city's economy and improve people's livelihood.
"I want another chance," she said.
She also ruled out the possibility of launching an independent inquiry into police actions, and refused to give any assurance that protesters would not be charged over the clashes.
"Anybody who has committed an offence has to be brought to justice. I believe that this is a common aspiration of Hong Kong people," she said.
"Hong Kong has very well-established mechanisms to deal with complaints against the police. We have the Capo, the Complaints Against Police Office, and we have an Independent (Police) Complaints Council, the IPCC."
Among the first to accept her apology was Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of Hong Kong's largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
"If she is forced to resign because of this, it will leave a power vacuum that won't do the city any good," she said.
But Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu countered: "She has not even taken a bow, how is that sincere?"
Separately, police director of management services Edwina Lau Chi-wai said Capo would set up a special team to look into 61 complaints received against the force so far.
IPCC chairman Anthony Neoh said the watchdog would come up with a detailed report suggesting ways for improvement.
Additional reporting by Su Xinqi, Kanis Leung and Christy Leung
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