More time to 'pause and think': Under pressure, Hong Kong government takes a step back on 'made in China' law

"Have you no conscience?" the woman yelled. "The world is watching."

The woman is in her 40s, and, like most people who have been protesting against — or even questioning — the Hong Kong government here this week, she didn't want her name used for fear of official reprisals.

The young people who surround her are teens and 20-somethings, like the ones who filled Hong Kong streets this week to protest a proposed law that would allow anyone here to be extradited to mainland China.

That legislation sparked two huge protests this week, one of them drawing a crowd of as many as a million people. More big protests are planned for this Sunday and Monday.

And today, the Hong Kong government seemed to start backing down. Chief Executive Carrie Lam put the proposed law on hold, for a chance to "pause and think."

She said the bill was being suspended indefinitely, in order to "restore as quickly as possible calmness to society" and to hold more consultations.

"I told myself, I need to do something decisive to address the issues," she said. She has spent the past two days consulting with senior officials from Beijing, as well as her own divided cabinet.

Lam said she was not trying to head off another big protest planned for tomorrow. And indeed, organizers say that demonstration will go ahead because the bill is not dead.

The bill, which had been scheduled for debate this week, has come to symbolize the fears and mistrust that many in this former British colony — with its Western traditions — have of Beijing.

When Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997, the Chinese government promised to allow the territory to keep its different political, economic and legal system until at least 2047 under an approach it called "one country, two systems."

Instead, through small measures and bigger ones, Beijing has been chipping away at Hong Kong's freedoms, often doing so through politicians it has used its influence to install, while enlisting the territory's own laws and judges to suppress political opposition.

Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

The proposed extradition law has set off more panic than usual because it raises the spectre of China reaching into Hong Kong using any accusation at all, and scooping up businesspeople, workers with non-governmental organizations, journalists … really, anyone it considers a threat.

They would then face China's harsh, politicized and arbitrary legal system, with few rights for the accused and verdicts usually pre-determined.

Police shoot rubber bullets for the first time

"The students are speaking for us," the woman yelled. "Don't beat them for that."

Indeed, Hong Kong has been shaken by images of heavily armed police beating back protestors with batons and pepper spray. For the first time in the territory's history, officers shot at them with rubber bullets and bean bag rounds.

And in just a few hours on Wednesday, they fired 150 cannisters of tear gas, twice the amount they used over the 79 days of Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014.

Amnesty International has condemned the "ugly scenes of excessive force" against a largely peaceful protest as a violation of international law.

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

At a news conference, Police Chief Stephen Lo denied the accusations. He said officers were simply responding to a "violent," "hostile and unstable" crowd that charged at them with bricks and metal rods. Eleven people were arrested, three of them while at hospital being treated for their injuries.

"We try our best to avoid confrontation," Lo said, "to let them express their will, even when they occupy the main thoroughfare of Hong Kong."

The Hong Kong police are acting like Chinese public security. It's very scary. - Claudia Mo, pro-democracy member of Hong Kong legislature

But for many, the police actions have become just another example of how Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government is forcing a made-in-China law — and its authoritarian system — on a society that wants to hold onto democratic values.

"The Hong Kong police are acting like Chinese public security. It's very scary," said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy member of the Hong Kong legislature.

"This is exactly what happened at Tiananmen," she said, referring to China's crackdown on students demanding democracy from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing in 1989.

Vernon Yuen/EPA-EFE

"It makes me want to cry when I see that," said one protestor, a university student who would only give the name Lau for fear of the authorities.

"The government is using guns to shoot us," he said. "They don't hear our voice. They don't listen to us."

Leader remains unmoved

Until now, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has remained defiant, insisting the law will be passed quickly and dismissing the demonstrations. She compared young protestors to spoiled children.

"I call on schools, parents, institutions, corporations, unions to consider seriously if they advocate these radical actions and what kind of benefits it will bring," she said.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Lam and her government say the law is needed because, while Hong Kong has extradition treaties with many countries (including Canada), the old British administration never signed one with China because it did not trust the mainland's judicial system.

Without one, Lam argues Hong Kong could become a haven for China's fugitives.

The proposed law would only apply to more serious crimes — those calling for a penalty of at least seven years — and Hong Kong judges would decide if China has met certain human rights criteria, such as guaranteeing the accused would not face the death penalty if sent to the mainland.

List of opponents getting longer

Critics say there's no recourse if China doesn't keep its word, and nothing to prevent Beijing from trumping up charges for political reasons, or to demand the extradition of people it doesn't like.

Some have pointed to the example of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, arrested in China last December under very serious espionage accusations in apparent retaliation for Canada's detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

More and more Hong Kong residents fear it puts them at similar risk. 

For the past week, pressure to reconsider the law has been mounting, with the list of those opposed growing longer by the day.

Corporate groups, lawyers, social workers, unions, teachers and others have all expressed their fears.

Like many other business owners, Lai Chun Kit shut down his video production company on the day of the protests this week to let his staff demonstrate.

"The bill concerns the fate of Hong Kong," he said. "Work can be done another day, but if the law is passed, the price will be the protection of freedom for future generations."

Thomas Pete/Reuters

Lam's own cabinet has been split over the issue over the past few days, with some advisers pushing for the pause and others arguing there's no turning back.

"From my point of view, get it over and done with," cabinet member Regina Ip said in a CBC interview.

She supports the bill, and suggests that those opposed to it have been fooled by organized groups. She showed CBC pictures on her phone of people at the marches she says are American CIA agents influencing the protesters.

It's a similar argument the Chinese government has made, with a spokesman accusing Washington of having "delusions of creation chaos" in Hong Kong this week.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ip says her territorial government completely cannot back down because it will lose face.

"If the government withdrew the bill, it would only be seen as another defeat," she said. "Those of us running for election would be taunted on the street for backing the wrong horse."

That's not an argument Alice accepts. She, too, doesn't want her full name used.

She says whatever happens, the bill has raised many worries among people like herself. She's afraid the whole atmosphere of Hong Kong as a "safe harbour" for people and business is changing.

"Just doing this interview, I was asking myself: Should I wear a face mask?" she said. "In the future, if this law passes, no one would ever sit here without one, because, the next minute, I'm afraid I'll be in jail for what I say."

In jail, she fears — and on her way to a Chinese court.