In a stunning reversal, Hong Kong's leader has agreed to delay an anti-subversion bill that prompted a protest by 500,000 people who called it a threat to their freedom.
The Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, met his top aides in the early hours of this morning, then issued a statement to say he was backing down from demands that the national security bill be passed on Wednesday. Yesterday Beijing had said it wanted the bill passed on schedule. Some analysts and MPs have said Mr Tung might not be able to survive what has become the biggest crisis of his administration.
Mr Tung's hopes of passing the bill by Wednesday evaporated after a key legislative ally, James Tien of the pro-business Liberal Party, resigned from his top policymaking body last night. Mr Tien reiterated that the bill should be delayed to allow for further public consultation.
On Saturday Mr Tung had sought to push the bill forward by watering down three provisions that had come under intense fire from critics who called the bill a threat to Hong Kong's freedoms of speech, press and assembly. Mr Tung has repeatedly said that such charges were overblown and civil liberties would remain protected. But a protest last Tuesday on the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's handover was the biggest since 1 million people demonstrated against Beijing's deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in June 1989. Organisers had said tens of thousands of the city's 6.8 million people would rally again when the bill came before the legislature.
In announcing that he would delay the bill, Mr Tung said: "A lot of people think that the government has proactively responded to their demands, but many still hope the government can give them more time to understand the amendments and the content of the draft bill."
He reiterated that at some point the bill would have to be passed, as required under Article 23 of the mini-constitution put in place when Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997.
But Mr Tung, who was handpicked by Beijing to lead Hong Kong after the handover, said the Liberal Party's stance had made it clear that the bill would need to be delayed.
The Liberals have been major allies of Mr Tung's administration since the handover, and their eight votes would have been sufficient to stop the bill that is firmly opposed by 23 of the 60 members of the Legislative Council.
About 50 legislators and activists protested yesterday, saying the bill must be slowed down so the public could be better consulted. Critics say the government has gone too far with a measure that imposes life prison sentences for many crimes against the state.
Acknowledging the massive outpouring of discontent, Mr Tung said on Saturday that he would scrap a provision of the bill that allowed some groups to be banned, add protections for journalists who published classified information and delete a provision that would let police conduct searches without warrants. But opposition MPs and some journalist groups said the watered-down bill still did not offer enough protection for the media.
Several government allies and MPs including Mr Tien, went directly to Beijing and met Chinese central government officials to discuss the issue, heightening perceptions that Mr Tung had lost his authority. (AP)