Tens of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday in Hong Kong as campaigners look to keep the pressure on the government, despite a move by the city’s embattled leader to suspend a controversial extradition bill.
Large numbers of protesters gathered in the city’s Victoria Park just after midday Sunday, donning black and wearing white ribbons on their chests. Many carried bunches of white flowers to honor a man who died after falling from a building Saturday while holding banners opposing the extradition bill.
“We buy the white flower to hope that he can rest in peace,” said 23-year-old Michael, who works in concessions and gave only his first name. Like many others around him, he carried a sign saying “Freedom is Not Free.”
Saturday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the top official in Hong Kong, said passage of the bill would be suspended and a second reading due to take place this month canceled. There is no timeline for discussions around the bill to resume, Lam said, and she indicated it likely will not pass this year.
Faced with yet another huge protest over her handling of the bill, Lam issued a rare apology Sunday night, admitting “deficiencies” in the government’s work had led to “substantial controversies and disputes in society,” causing disappointment and grief for citizens of Hong Kong.
But for the protesters, neither the suspension nor the apology was enough.
They fear the bill could be used to extradite residents to mainland China for political or inadvertent business offenses and are pushing for it to be shelved completely.
“We need to come out and tell the government we cannot approve this China extradition bill,” said Michael, adding that he believed Lam would continue to push for the bill at a later date.
“We need to stop this because Hong Kong is a very special place. The economy, the culture, it’s a special one for the world,” he said.
Members of the early crowd were predominantly young people, but they were soon joined by families.
Aerial shots along the protest route from the city’s Victoria Park through the downtown area to Tim Mei Avenue in Admiralty showed the crowd at standstill, as crowd numbers continued to surge throughout the afternoon and into the early evening.
Mandy, who turned 18 on Sunday, said she didn’t attend the first anti-extradition protest on June 9 when organizers estimate more than 1 million people — about one in seven of the city’s population — took to the streets in a peaceful march against the legislation.
“Through this week I think the problem has become more and more serious and I should stand out. So I joined this campaign today,” she said.
“I think this protest is more important than my birthday so I come here,” she said.
Chik Kim Ping, 65, and her husband Tse, 70, traveled from the New Territories in the north of the city to protest the extradition bill.
“It’s important for us to do this for our children,” Chik Kim Ping said. “We are old and don’t have much time left. We won’t see what’s going to happen in 2047 (when Hong Kong fully becomes part of China) but our children will.”
The decision to go ahead with Sunday’s protest follows violent clashes between police and protesters Wednesday, after tens of thousands of mostly young people surrounded the city’s government headquarters, forcing legislators to postpone a debate on the bill.
Protest organizers are calling for authorities to drop charges against the 11 people arrested during protests Wednesday, amid widespread criticism of police tactics.
Up to 5,000 riot police fired 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds during the course of the day. The number of tear gas canisters used was almost double the amount fired during 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, when the city was brought to a standstill for 79 days.
Videos from Wednesday’s protest showed police spraying tear gas directly into protesters’ faces and beating them with batons.
Speaking after Lam’s news conference Saturday, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said protests would continue throughout the city until she steps down.
“If she refuses to withdraw, to scrap this controversial bill altogether, it would mean that we wouldn’t retreat. She stays on. We stay on,” Mo said. “Carrie Lam has lost all credibility among the Hong Kong people. She must step down.”
Before she became chief executive in 2017, Lam said she would resign “if mainstream opinion makes me no longer able to continue the job.”
Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the organizers of Hong Kong protests, say they will strike until Lam steps down.
CHRF estimated that almost 2 million people descended on the city’s streets Sunday, numbers they say are unprecedented. Police estimated that the 338,000 people followed the protest’s original route.
In a statement released by the group, CHRF said the people of Hong Kong would keep protesting until the government withdraws the extradition bill in its entirety, retracts the characterization of the protests as a “riot,” releases arrested protesters and withdraws all charges.
“Should the government refuse to respond, only more Hong Kongers will strike tomorrow,” CHRF said.
Although Hong Kong is part of China, it has a different legal system — a concept known as “one country, two systems.”
Pro-democracy figures said the bill, championed by the pro-Beijing Lam government, would lead to the erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong, including freedom of speech and rule of law.
“We are afraid that we will become a mainland city,” lawmaker Fernando Cheung said Thursday. “We would no longer have rule of law, our own autonomy.”
Throughout the debate Lam has maintained that the bill is necessary to ensure that Hong Kong does not become a sanctuary for fugitives running from justice in mainland China.
Hong Kong’s legislative council is due to go on summer recess July 20 before beginning again in October.