Chief Executive Carrie Lam struck a more conciliatory tone but stopped short of key protester demands

Hong Kong (AFP) - Hong Kong’s embattled pro-Beijing leader on Tuesday announced a widely loathed China extradition law that has sparked unprecedented political unrest “is dead” – but she stopped short of demands to immediately withdraw the bill.

In her most conciliatory remarks since huge protests erupted a month ago, chief executive Carrie Lam admitted her administration’s attempt to introduce the law was a “complete failure”.

But it was unclear whether her words would defang protests which have rocked the semi-autonomous city, with analysts saying trust in the government has been severely eroded.

The international finance hub has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history following a month of marches and sporadic violent confrontations with police involving a minority of hardcore protesters.

The rallies were sparked by a now-suspended law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. But they morphed into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.

The crisis – which has seen police fire tear gas and rubber bullets and the city’s parliament trashed by protesters – is the most serious challenge to Beijing’s authority since the city was handed back to China in 1997.

With calls mounting for her resignation, Lam has made few public appearances in recent weeks. But on Tuesday she resurfaced to repeat her stance that there was no plan to bring back the extradition bill.

“There is no such plan. The bill is dead,” Lam said.

Yet she declined to use the word “withdraw” – a demand chanted by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have massed across the city.

They are demanding the flashpoint law is scrapped from the legislative agenda, rather than wait for it to expire in July 2020 when the next parliamentary session ends.

Lam agreed to meet student protesters without preconditions, adding she recognised the swirling economic, political and social challenges facing the city.

“I come to the conclusion that there are some fundamental and deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society,” she said.

Lam has been under pressure to appoint an independent judge to head up a public commission of inquiry into the police response to the protests.

But Lam rejected those calls again on Monday, backing an existing police complaints body to investigate claims of excessive force.

Analyst Dixon Sing said it was unlikely protesters would be satisfied by Lam’s latest statement.

“Trust in the government has sunk to such a record level that if there’s not a clear fulfillment of the (key) demands, the majority of the Hong Kong public will still be very sceptical of the government’s sincerity,” he told AFP.

- ‘Stress test’ bank -

The anti-extradition movement united an unlikely cross-section of Hong Kong society, including major business, legal bodies as well as religious leaders, activists and journalists.

Protesters have vowed to ramp up their actions if their demands are not met.

Chat forums and encrypted messenger apps are buzzing with calls for the mass withdrawal of funds from the Bank of China this Saturday to “stress test” the organisation’s liquidity.

Beijing has thrown its full support behind Lam, calling on police to pursue anyone involved in the parliament storming and other clashes.

Over the weekend its ambassador to London said the extradition bill was needed to “plug loopholes”, fuelling fears Beijing may try to ram through the legislation.

The protests are also part of a longer battle for the soul of Hong Kong between those who see full integration with the autocratic mainland as an inevitability and those who wish to preserve the city’s unique freedoms and culture.

Under the 1997 handover deal with the British, China promised to allow Hong Kong to keep key liberties such as its independent judiciary and rights like freedom of speech.

But many say that 50-year deal is already being reneged on, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of democracy protest leaders.

Authorities have also resisted calls for the city’s leader to be directly elected by the people.