Hong Kong's leader agreed yesterday to delay an anti-subversion bill that drew a half million protesters into the streets and threw his government into its biggest crisis since the former British colony was returned to China.
Critics said Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) has lost control over Hong Kong and might not survive the predicament.
"Tung should take the blame and resign," said pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung. "This is an unprecedented political calamity that has wiped out the power and reputation of his administration."
In a stunning reversal, Tung announced yesterday that the bill outlawing subversion, sedition, treason and other crimes against the state would not be submitted for a vote tomorrow. Tung had earlier insisted on that timetable. On Saturday, he said he would cull portions of the bill in a last-minute attempt to calm the criticism.
Opponents fear the legislation would lead to Chinese-style repression of dissident viewpoints and undermine Hong Kong's freedoms of speech, press and assembly. It carries life prison sentences for many offenses.
An official in Beijing said on Sunday the bill should be passed "on schedule," but Tung had to abandon the plan after a key legislative ally, James Tien of the pro-business Liberal Party, refused to go along. Tien announced his unprecedented resignation from Tung's top policy-making body on Sunday night, saying the bill needed more public consultation.
Tung's government repeatedly denied Hong Kong's freedoms were in jeopardy but found itself in an unmanageable and unprecedented dilemma after the massive protest last Tuesday, the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.
An anti-subversion bill is required under Hong Kong's mini-constitution, but critics say the government tried to go too far with its measure. They accused Tung of betraying Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" form of government that guaranteed it could keep its Western-style civil liberties and capitalist ways.
The US, the EU, Britain, Australia and New Zealand all raised questions about the anti-subversion bill.
Acknowledging widespread public discontent, Tung said on Saturday he would scrap a provision that allows some groups to be banned, add protections for journalists who publish classified information and delete a provision that would let police conduct searches without warrants.
Tung huddled with top aides into the wee hours of yesterday, then backed down.
Last week's protest was the biggest in Hong Kong since 1 million people demonstrated against Beijing's deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in June 1989. It gave many here a new sense of empowerment.
"Beijing should get a very important message: We are not asking for independence, but we do want to be left alone in running our own affairs," said lawmaker Martin Lee, a top opposition figure. "We love our freedom."