HONG KONG — HONG KONG - Hong Kong's chief executive, bowing to public pressure, announced yesterday that he was withdrawing internal-security legislation that had provoked huge protests in July. The retreat by Tung Chee-hwa, the chief executive, is a startling setback for Beijing, which rarely yields to popular demand.
Beijing had insisted for much of the past year that Hong Kong pass stringent security laws as soon as possible. Tung mounted a campaign to persuade the public that the bill's opponents were unpatriotic people who disliked China and, in the words of Qian Qichen, until recently China's deputy prime minister, had "devils in their hearts."
But when 500,000 people, nearly a tenth of the population, turned up to march against the legislation July 1, in China's biggest protest since the Tiananmen Square rallies in 1989, Beijing's reaction was mostly silence. In the weeks since then, the official reaction has been unexpectedly pragmatic, leading some experts to suggest that China's new president, Hu Jintao, and his top aides may be somewhat less quick to crack down on dissent than their predecessors.
"The voices of moderation have been pretty consistently in the ascendancy," said William Overholt, an expert on Hong Kong and China at Rand, a consulting concern in Santa Monica, Calif.
Hong Kong has preserved its economic system and many of its laws since Britain handed it over to China in 1997. Many here described the security legislation with its broad police powers, vaguely worded definitions of crimes and long prison sentences as the true transfer to Chinese rule.
Hong Kong's protesters differed from the Tiananmen Square protesters in significant ways. The marchers here were mostly seeking to preserve the status quo, not change it. Democracy advocates here also had the discipline to hold three mass rallies over two weeks and then stop to wait for Tung's response instead of demonstrating continuously for two months, as happened in 1989.
Tung began to retreat July 7 when he dropped his original goal of winning passage for his security bill July 9. He said yesterday that while he still believed legislation was needed here to protect China's national security, he would not introduce a new bill until a clear public consensus supported it.
Tung canceled government plans to issue a "consultation document" asking the public what, if any, amendments the bill should include.