Hundreds Of Thousands In Hong Kong Protest Proposed Changes To Extradition Law
Protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday over proposed change to the city's extradition laws.
Hundreds of Thousands, if not a million or more, of Hong Kong residents took to the streets today to protest a change in extradition laws in the former British territory that would make it easier for authorities to extradite those who are arrested and charged with a crime to mainland China:
HONG KONG — Hundreds of thousands marched Sunday through the sweltering streets of Hong Kong against a government proposal that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Organizers said it was the largest protest against Beijing’s tightening grip on the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule more than two decades ago.
The mass demonstration — organizers said they counted more than one million participants, or nearly one in seven Hong Kong residents — was a dramatic rebuke of Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, and immediately raised the stakes in her contentious push to adopt the new legislation, which the ruling Communist Party in Beijing has endorsed.
As midnight approached, the streets around the central government’s offices were packed with thousands of people waving signs saying “No China Extradition” and “No Evil Law,” reminiscent of the pro-democracy rallies five years ago that paralyzed several of the city’s main commercial and government districts and captivated the world.
Sunday’s demonstration was largely peaceful, though tempers flared near the government offices as the protesters, whose march had slowed to a standstill in some parts, urged the police to free up more lanes for them to proceed. Crowds booed when police buses, with lights flashing, arrived. Police officers used pepper spray on a handful of protesters at one point.
The protesters had set off from Victoria Park in the afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-80s and scattered rains providing little relief from the humidity. Many wore white as a symbol of justice and also mourning in Chinese culture.
The police estimated there were 240,000 protesters at the peak of the protest, but organizers, giving a figure topping a million, called it the biggest rally since 1989. As the crowd poured through the canyons of skyscrapers, it seemed to surpass the 2014 pro-democracy rally that drew more than half a million people.
The organizers of Sunday’s march said they hoped the numbers would show the breadth of disagreement with the extradition plan, which has stirred worries that people in Hong Kong, including foreign visitors, would be sent to face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.
The protesters directed much of their opposition toward Ms. Lam, the chief executive, calling for her to step down and booing as they passed a large screen displaying footage of her at a news conference. Ms. Lam declined to answer questions about the protests on Sunday, but the huge public outcry puts her in a difficult spot ahead of a vote on the bill expected later this month.
Late Sunday the government, responding to the protests, issued a statement saying the bill would prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives, and pledging to “continue to engage, listen and allay concerns through calm and rational discussion.”
The turnout underscored the deepening anxiety that many residents feel over Beijing’s tightening grip over Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory. The Communist Party had promised a “high degree of autonomy” before Britain returned the territory to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but many feel that the city’s freedoms are steadily eroding under Beijing’s rule.
“I think this law will take away our freedoms if it is implemented,” said Peter Lam, a 16-year-old high school student. “We will not have the right to express ourselves. So we must stand up and express ourselves today.”
Young people and families were prominent in the crowd, with parents bouncing toddlers on their hips and leading young children by the hand. One child clutched a sign saying, “Protect my future.”
The protesters’ numbers were so large that many protesters said they were still stuck in subway stations waiting to join, and some trains were skipping stations because of overcrowding.
The police said that officers used pepper spray after five or six masked men tried to occupy a major thoroughfare near the route of the march.
The proposed legislation would allow for suspects in some criminal cases to be turned over to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no formal extradition agreement. The immediate goal is to enable the government to send a Hong Kong man to Taiwan, where he is accused of having killed his girlfriend.
But there is deep concern about the broader implications of the legislation, particularly enabling extraditions to mainland China.
Hong Kong’s courts are far more transparent and independent than those in the mainland, where President Xi Jinping has been intensifying a crackdown on civil society. Worries about the reach of mainland China’s legal system have been made worse by the disappearance of people from Hong Kong into mainland custody, including a Chinese billionaire and men associated with a company that published books unflattering to mainland political leaders.
“Their judicial system is not good,” George Wan, 31, a freelance tour guide and writer at the protest, said of mainland China. He said the Hong Kong government was rushing the legislation through without properly consulting the public.
“We want to use our footsteps to tell the government we want more time,” Mr. Wan said as he waved a folding fan painted with characters that read “Oppose sending to China.”
This proposed law has apparently been brewing for months now with journalists who could potentially become targets due to their coverage of issues from the mainland and from civilians fearful of being handed over to mainland authorities. Additionally, the protest comes as a particularly sensitive time in Hong Kong. It was just a few days ago that similarly sized crowds turned out to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s massacre of civilians in Tiananmen Square after more than a month of student-led protests. That anniversary went unacknowledged in China itself, both in Beijing and elsewhere, although there may have been quiet remembrances in private around the country. As a result, passions seem to be particularly high right now among the civilian population in Hong Kong, which remains largely autonomous in its legal system and other ways despite the fact that it has been back under Chinese jurisdiction for the past 32 years.
The last time Hong Kong saw protests this big was some five years ago in response to proposed political reforms that would have limited the right of residents to speak out freely as guaranteed by the treaty China signed in 1997. In that case, the protests fizzled out after reaching a peak nearly as big as what we’re seeing now, but they effectively succeeded in that the legal changes were either scaled back or canceled altogether. What both instances, as well as the annual protests that mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, is that the people of Hong Kong still jealously guard the rights that they have under the law and that any perceived efforts to limit those rights would be met with protest. Certainly, China could respond to all of this by cracking down in the rebellious city but the leadership is wise enough to know that doing so would be a disaster both in terms of the widespread coverage it would receive from the western media, which is well-established in the city, and internationally. Even in this era where prosperity is becoming more widespread in China a whole, Hong Kong remains the goose that laid the golden egg and the leadership in Beijing is obviously too smart to mess that up.