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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bill Delay May Sink Hong Kong Leader

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's leader agreed early Monday 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 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 Monday that the bill outlawing subversion, sedition, treason and other crimes against the state would not be submitted for a vote Wednesday. Tung had earlier insisted on that timetable. On Saturday, he said he would alter portions of the bill in a last-minute attempt to calm the criticism.

Opponents fear the legislation would lead to mainland-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 Sunday that 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 policymaking body Sunday night, saying the bill needed more public consultation.

Tung's government repeatedly denied that 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 freewheeling capitalist ways.

The United States, the European Union, Britain, Australia and New Zealand all raised questions about the anti-subversion bill. China said they were improperly meddling.

Acknowledging widespread public discontent, Tung said Saturday that 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's opponents responded by stepping up their pressure. Tung huddled with top aides in the wee hours of Monday, 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."

Meeting briefly with reporters Monday, Tung reiterated that the bill needs to be passed at some point. He appealed for calm and said he would work to better understand public concerns and respond to them.

The political drama was a first for post-handover Hong Kong, with ordinary people forcing change in a system that critics have long contended was rigged to favor pro-Beijing and big business interests. Some said China's leaders might be alarmed.

"It may well lead to some backlash," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, a nongovernmental organization. "Unlike what Beijing has expected in the past, Hong Kong is not totally under their control. It's in their pocket, but it's still alive and kicking in a way that makes them uncomfortable."

A mainland Chinese official said Sunday that the bill should be approved as scheduled. Enacting the legislation is the "solemn responsibility of the Hong Kong people," a spokesman for the Chinese National People's Congress was quoted as telling the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Political scientist Ivan Choy from City University said the statement came from a fairly low-level official, giving Beijing some wiggle room.

As the crisis escalated, several government allies, including Tien, went directly to Beijing and met with central government officials, heightening perceptions that Tung had lost control of the situation.