In a historical march, more than 1 million Hong Kongers took to the streets yesterday to protest against the government’s extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China. Similar protests took place in 29 cities around the world in widespread shows of solidarity.
The march that drew nearly one seventh of the city’s total population did not end until 10:20pm, and some protestors stayed overnight. Conflicts sparked between the protestors and the police in the evening, when pepper spray was used.
Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of the protest, said the turnout in Hong Kong was more than a million, while police claimed there were 153,000 protesters that passed through the gates at Victoria Park. However, many joined at the head in Tin Hau and along the way.
The movement also spread to cities such as New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Taipei, Paris and Copenhagen. In Australia, nearly 5,000 took part in protests in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. Toronto’s event drew more than 2,000.
Dubbed the “last fight for Hong Kong”, the protest took place before the extradition bill enters second reading directly at the Legislative Council (Legco) on Wednesday. Many see the bill as a threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy, as it could signal another step in what they see as ongoing dismantling of protections the international city provides its residents and visitors passing through Hong Kong.
“When the gatekeeper for the extradition is a chief executive who is not elected by universal suffrage and has to answer to Beijing, you know it is not something based on reason, justification or political equality but more like a do-as-your-master-tells-you-to situation,” Olivia Lo, a 29 year-old protestor, told Harbour Times.
In an unprecedented move, the government, determined to pass the bill, opted to skip scrutiny at the committee level. The move came after the pro-government camp and the pro-democracy legislators each set up their own committees to scrutinize the bill, which failed to resolve their disputes and resulted in physical fights on May 11.
Local political party Demosistō, which spouses self-determination for Hong Kong, demanded a dialogue with Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu before the bill goes into second reading on Wednesday.
The Hong Kong government remains determined to discuss the bill this week as scheduled.
“We urge the Legislative Council to scrutinize the Bill in a calm, reasonable and respectful manner to help ensure Hong Kong remains a safe city for residents and business,” a government spokesperson said in a statement Sunday night.
A new high after 2003
Many compare the high turnout at the march on Sunday to the turnout to protests in 2003, when 500,000 people demonstrated against a national security law known as Article 23.
The historical march led to the resignation of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa in 2005 and a halted legislating of the national security law. To date, no administration has made another attempt to bring the law into reality.
It is not immediately clear what the protest on Sunday can achieve politically. While believing that things might not change, some protestors said it was still their civic duty to voice their opposition.
“Our anxiety and anger were proven right because the second reading debate on the bill is still on schedule after a million people took to the street on Sunday. But we have to try and keep trying,” said Lo.
“Things won’t change even if there’s a riot. I just want to be part of the effort to show support,” Toby Ng, a 27-year-old protestor, told Harbour Times.
Worries from home and abroad
The protest reflected Hong Kongers’ deep-rooted fear of China’s different legal system.
Many worry that political opponents, whether living in the city or just passing by, could be accused of economic crimes by mainland China and face extradition.
Others say China’s legal system is neither transparent nor fair. Chinese security authorities are believed to use tactics such as arbitrary arrests and forced confessions while depriving suspects of legal protection, which is a right in other civil societies.
Governments and business groups around the world have expressed their concern. The UK and Canadian governments made a rare joint statement, while the EU issued a formal diplomatic “demarche” protest note.
But Hong Kong officials argued the law will close a two-decade-old legal loophole, as currently there is no mechanism to extradite people from Hong Kong to mainland China, Macau or Taiwan.
Beijing has already made clear its intentions. The amended law can enable the extradition of over 3000 fugitives from China who have fled to Hong Kong, according to former Deputy Minister of Public Security Mr Chen Zhimin.
With a strong will to pass the bill, the Hong Kong government has made concessions to ease concerns. Only extradition requests for suspects who might face seven years in prison, up from three, would be considered by the Hong Kong’s head.
And to reassure the normally conservative business sector, the government also said earlier it would scrap nine types of commercial crimes that would be covered by extradition after local and foreign chambers of commerce expressed their concerns repeatedly.
But these efforts may be in vain. More than 500 groups from the legal, cultural, education and religious sectors initiated petitions against the extradition bill, compared to 355 groups who supported it.