In a stunning victory for this city's prodemocracy opposition, Hong Kong's leader retreated in the face of huge street protests and agreed early today to delay an internal security bill that critics said threatened civil liberties in the only corner of China where residents are free to challenge the country's Communist government.
The surprise reversal by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was announced shortly after 2 a.m., after statements from Beijing urging Hong Kong officials to pass the measure as scheduled. Tung had promised as recently as Saturday to bring the bill to a vote this week despite the public outcry, which included a demonstration Tuesday that attracted about half a million people.
But late Sunday, one of the two main progovernment parties in Hong Kong, the Liberal Party, broke with Tung, exhorting him to delay the bill and allow more time to address the public's fears. The head of the party, James Tien, also announced his resignation from Tung's Cabinet.
The defection gave a slight majority to prodemocracy lawmakers who opposed the bill. In an emergency meeting with his top aides that stretched past midnight, Tung chose to postpone a vote rather than risk an embarrassing defeat in the Legislative Council.
"In light of the position of the Liberal Party, we have decided, after detailed deliberations, to defer the bill and to step up our efforts to explain the amendments to the community in the coming days," Tung said in a brief statement. He offered no timetable for when he might try again to enact it.
As residents of this port city in southern China woke this morning, the news spread quickly: Though they cannot elect their chief executive, or even a majority of their lawmakers, they had forced the government to back down simply by marching through the streets.
The peaceful protests, which took place in sweltering heat on the sixth anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule, were the largest in China since Beijing crushed the 1989 student-led democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Participants took pride in defying the conventional wisdom that Hong Kong residents are interested only in profits, not politics.
Tung's retreat was an embarrassing defeat for the Chinese government, which had pushed him to enact the legislation and has suppressed news of the demonstrations in the mainland's state-controlled media. Several analysts said the incident could end the career of the shipping tycoon hand-picked by Beijing to run the city six years ago, and damage those of officials in China responsible for Hong Kong affairs.
A new Communist general secretary, Hu Jintao, has been trying to consolidate power by sidelining allies of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, and it is unclear what role either faction played in shaping Beijing's position on the antisubversion bill.
Beijing has given mixed signals on the issue in recent days. Tien traveled to Beijing on Friday and reported Chinese officials told him the timing and content of the legislation was up to Hong Kong. But the next day, when Tung pledged to push forward with a vote, the official New China News Agency quoted authorities urging Hong Kong to "complete the legislation as scheduled."
The antisubversion bill was seen as a threat to the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong after its return to China.