HONG KONG — Two members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment appeared to break ranks with the city’s embattled leader on Friday, saying publicly that an unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China should be delayed.
Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said on Friday that it would be impossible to rush through the bill, with the city on edge after street clashes that saw the police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters opposed to the legislation. And the lawmaker Michael Tien became the first member of the legislature’s pro-Beijing faction to openly call for a delay of the bill’s passage.
“If things continue to move in the wrong direction, I am worried that the government will find it harder to win the trust of its friends and I worry about Hong Kong’s governance prospects,” Mr. Tien wrote on his Facebook page.
The remarks could signal that public pressure is forcing Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing faction, which has been a staunch supporter of Mrs. Lam on the extradition issue, to speak out against it. Mrs. Lam, who called off a planned appearance at a technology conference on Friday, has not commented on the issue since Wednesday night, when she urged the public to help restore order.
Mr. Chan, the convener of the Executive Council, a body that advises the territory’s chief executive on major policy decisions, told a local radio station that the massive downtown street conflict between police and demonstrators on Wednesday had forced a rethink of the government’s earlier plan to put the bill up for a vote by next week.
The police have said they used force on Wednesday to suppress protesters who had tried to storm the territory’s Legislative Council to prevent a reading of the bill. But the crackdown also left thousands of peaceful protesters choking on tear gas and many others smarting from pepper spray or injured by rubber bullets.
The government later said that 81 people had been injured, and the authorities were heavily criticized as video that appeared to show police officers using excessive force circulated on social media.
“There is so much misunderstanding, and on Wednesday we all witnessed very saddening events we don’t want to see,” Mr. Chan told the station RTHK. “So we really need to review this bill again — to explain this in detail again would be one option.”
The intense public outcry against the bill comes from a fear that it would put Hong Kong’s residents and visitors at risk of being detained and sent to China for trial by the country’s Communist Party-controlled courts. Underlying the opposition is a growing fear that the freedoms people in Hong Kong enjoy under the “one country, two systems” policy, put in place when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, are rapidly shrinking.
In a sign of the international pressure on Mrs. Lam, a bipartisan group of American lawmakers introduced a bill on Wednesday calling for a broad review of Washington’s relationship with Hong Kong. The bill would require the American secretary of state to affirm every year that the territory remains sufficiently autonomous from the Chinese mainland to deserve special treatment.
On Friday, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, accused the American lawmakers of making “irresponsible” remarks and “violently” interfering in China’s internal affairs.
After the protests and clashes on Wednesday, the Hong Kong legislature’s president delayed debate on the extradition bill through Friday. No date has been set for when the legislature will resume meeting. Further protests against the bill are planned for Sunday, and activists have called for schools, shops and workers to go on strike on Monday, in another effort to stop the bill from passing.
The South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Friday that 22 former top officials and lawmakers in Hong Kong had asked Ms. Lam in a letter to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the bill for more thorough deliberation.” They also urged her advisers to resign if their pleas to that effect are ignored.
“A deeply divided society, serious concerns of the international community — are these the sacrifices to be made to satisfy the will of the chief executive?” they wrote, as reported by the newspaper. “What great public interest is supposed to be served by the hurried passage of this bill?”
Criticism of the government and the police has put significant political pressure on Mrs. Lam, who was selected by China’s leaders to govern Hong Kong two years ago and has championed the bill. But so far, she has shown no sign of backing down. On Wednesday, she called the demonstration an “organized riot” and compared the protesters — mostly young people in their 20s and 30s — to spoiled children.
Mr. Chan said on Friday that his primary concern was ensuring that conflict between protesters and the authorities did not escalate.
“It you ask for my personal opinion, at this moment, maybe we should consider not polarizing everyone?” he told RTHK. “As we can see now, the government is not proceeding with the meetings. I figure that this is a buffer for the situation right now, and also to look at whether the citizens really actually understand what this bill is about.”
But Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who serves on the same advisory council as Mr. Chan, told reporters on Friday that Mr. Chan’s remarks merely represented the concerns of the business community and that she had not heard of any plan to retract the bill.
“I think the government faces some tough choices,” Ms. Ip told reporters on Friday about the Legislative Council’s options for handling the bill. “If LegCo proceeds with second reading and debate, it could face large crowds and violent protests.”
“But on the other hand, if the government caves in to violence and external influencers, in the long run that would also make Hong Kong ungovernable,” she added.
As of early Friday evening, neither Mrs. Lam nor her ministers had commented on whether their position on the extradition bill would change.
To address concerns about the bill, officials in the Legislative Council have proposed more than 100 amendments. Now, many fear that the amount of time allocated for debating the bill — 61 hours — will not be enough. Some have called political foul play.
Others object to the length of time that the government allocated for public consultation on the bill before moving it to the legislature. The government set aside 20 days, but other bills, including ones that are far less controversial, routinely get a few months.
Lawyers have questioned the government’s sense of urgency in passing this bill, too. Mrs. Lam has said it would address a legal loophole urgently needed to ensure that a Hong Kong man accused of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year does not go free.
But officials in Taiwan have objected to the legislation and said they would not seek the man’s extradition if it passed. In its current form, the bill could undermine the sovereignty of Taiwan, which China regards as part of its territory.
Mr. Tien, the pro-Beijing lawmaker, said that he did not understand why Mrs. Lam remained “so adamant” about passing the bill given Taiwan’s opposition.
That opposition “would provide the basis for any leader to change their position,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with that. This is what I am imploring the chief executive to do.”