HONG KONG — The resignation of a pro-government party leader from the Cabinet yesterday prompted Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa to reverse himself and delay a vote on an antisubversion bill that has sparked giant anti-China protests.
The decision by Mr. Tung came despite a statement by China’s government in Beijing earlier in the day that it wanted the bill passed on Wednesday as scheduled.
But Mr. Tung was forced to back down after a key legislative ally, James Tien of the pro-business and normally pro-Beijing Liberal Party, resigned from Mr. Tung’s top policy-making body.
Mr. Tien said the bill should be delayed to allow further public consultation.
The decision reflected Mr. Tung’s tenuous position after half a million Hong Kong residents protested the bill on Tuesday, saying it would threaten the territory’s freedoms of speech, press and assembly.
Mr. Tung, who tried Saturday to push the bill forward by watering down some provisions, met in the early hours with his top aides, then issued a statement saying he was retreating from China’s demand that the bill pass Wednesday.
“A lot of people think that the government has proactively responded to their demands, but many still hope the government can give them more time to understand the amendments and the content of the draft bill,” Mr. Tung’s office said in a statement.
Mr. Tung reiterated that at some point the bill will have to be passed.
But he said the Liberal Party’s stance had made it clear that the bill would need to be delayed for now.
The Liberals have been major allies of Mr. Tung’s administration since Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.
Their eight votes would have been sufficient to stop the bill, which is firmly opposed by 23 of the 60 members of the Legislative Council.
About 50 legislators and activists protested yesterday, saying the bill must be delayed. Critics say the government has gone too far with a measure that imposes life prison sentences for many crimes against the state.
Acknowledging the massive outpouring of discontent, Mr. Tung said Saturday he would scrap a provision of the bill that allows some groups to be banned, add protections for journalists who publish classified information and delete a provision that would let police conduct searches without warrants.
But opposition lawmakers and some journalist groups said that was still not enough protection for the media.
Beijing said yesterday the bill should be approved Wednesday as scheduled, raising the stakes as both sides of the issue sought to build support in the political drama that is unprecedented in post-handover Hong Kong.
Speaking for the first time since Tuesday’s protest, Hong Kong security chief Regina Ip said yesterday the antisubversion bill would not undermine religious or other freedoms.
The leader of Hong Kong’s Roman Catholics, Bishop Joseph Zen, is among the prominent critics.
Tuesday’s protest was the biggest in Hong Kong since 1 million people demonstrated against Beijing’s deadly crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement in June 1989. Organizers said tens of thousands would rally again when the bill goes before the Legislature.
Several key government allies and lawmakers, including Mr. Tien, went directly to Beijing and met with government officials to discuss the issue, heightening perceptions that Mr. Tung has lost his authority.
Professor Li Pang-kwong of Lingnan University said Mr. Tung is in serious trouble after failing to gauge public opinion on the antisubversion bill.