Beijing Unusually Quiet on Hong Kong Bill Withdrawal

September 5, 2019 Updated: September 5, 2019

Since Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced the formal withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill on Sept. 4, the Chinese regime has been oddly quiet about the news.

Lam’s announcement was made in a pre-recorded television address, saying that she made the decision “in order to fully allay public concerns.”

The bill, which would have allowed the Chinese regime to transfer individuals for trial to mainland China, drew widespread opposition because of concern that it would erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and independent judiciary.

On Sept. 5, Lam held a press conference, and when asked whether Beijing was involved in her decision to formally withdraw the bill, she said that her administration had initiated, suspended, and withdrawn the bill on its volition—with Beijing’s support.

Beijing’s Silence

Chinese officials have kept mum on the issue.

On Sept. 5, during a regular press briefing, Geng Shuang, spokesman for China’s foreign affairs ministry, evaded questions about the bill’s withdrawal.

“It is not a diplomatic issue. I can only advise you to ask the departments in charge,” he replied, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, which attended the briefing. On the foreign ministry website, where reporters’ questions and Geng’s answers are usually published, both the question and Geng’s reply were deleted.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), the highest office in Beijing for managing the two former European colonies, also has made no public comments on Lam’s announcement, although it had convened a press conference about the Hong Kong protests on Sept. 3.

In June, when Lam announced that the bill would be indefinitely suspended, the HKMAO, foreign ministry, and the Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, made formal statements in support of Lam’s decision.

In contrast to the frequent editorials and articles disseminating Beijing’s narrative on the Hong Kong protests in past weeks, Chinese state-run media has kept silent since Lam’s televised announcement.

State-run media Xinhua, which represents the attitudes and opinions of the Chinese regime, published a short article on Sept. 4 about Lam’s announcement, explaining the four actions that Lam mentioned in her address—that the Hong Kong government would undertake to quell the social unrest.

Xinhua also published a commentary late on Sept. 4, which didn’t mention the bill withdrawal but focused on criticizing Hong Kong protesters as rioters, in a similar tone as its previous commentaries.

Another Xinhua commentary, also published on Sept. 4, explained that many Hongkongers don’t have enough money to buy an apartment and that the wealth disparity there is huge, although it didn’t indicate why Hong Kong real estate is so expensive. The article claimed that such economic problems were an “important reason that ignited the extradition bill incident.”

CCTV, China’s state-run broadcaster, didn’t report on Lam’s announcement at all; other Chinese media, such as Xinhua, either kept silent or gave limited coverage.

Analyzing Beijing

While it’s unclear why Beijing has chosen to remain silent or evade the issue, China affairs commentator Zhou Xiaohui examined the reasoning behind Lam’s withdrawal decision, in a commentary published in the Chinese-language Epoch Times.

He noted that given the sensitivity of the matter, Lam’s decision couldn’t have occurred without Beijing’s input.

“The decision on Hong Kong affairs is ultimately from the Beijing regime. Then why did it suddenly agree to withdraw the bill?” Zhou wrote.

He offered two hypotheses: First, the Chinese regime wanted to relieve international pressure, especially as U.S. lawmakers show support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which proposes making Hong Kong’s special trading status contingent on the issuance of an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy by the U.S. secretary of state.

The risk of Hong Kong losing its financial hub status would be detrimental to mainland China’s economy, Zhou wrote, since much foreign investment comes from the city.

The other reason is that Beijing wishes to resolve the crisis by “prolonging the process and waiting for the protesters to give up,” Zhou wrote. He surmised that Beijing’s strategy is to have the Hong Kong government concede on one demand and defuse protesters’ frustrations—and hope that their dissent will eventually wane.