Hong Kong was once again the scene of enormous peaceful demonstrations Sunday, a day after the territory’s chief executive bowed to public pressure by suspending a contentious extradition bill viewed as a challenge to the city’s autonomy.
Organizers estimate 1.9 million people attended the demonstrations, which is about a quarter of the city’s population and nearly double the number of people who demonstrated the previous Sunday. Police estimates put the crowds at 338,000.
The immense outpouring prompted the government to issue a long-sought-after apology from Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the embattled bureaucrat dismissed by many in this increasingly independent-minded city as a puppet for Beijing.
“The chief executive apologizes to the public and promises to accept it with the utmost sincerity and humility,” the statement said.
The statement did not address public calls for Lam to withdraw the bill or to resign — the primary demands of the hundreds of thousands who clogged Hong Kong’s streets, many wearing black in solidarity.
Protesters said they were emboldened by the government’s surprising suspension of the extradition bill and would stay committed to defending what little autonomy from China they still have.
“One week ago, our future was dark. But now I can see so many people here supporting our protest,” said Casper Ng, a 22-year-old student at the Hong Kong Design Institute. “So I think our future will be bright. But we need to keep fighting for our democracy and freedom.”
Hong Kongers are guaranteed rights such as freedom of speech and assembly that aren’t afforded citizens over the border in mainland China. Those rights are enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, which is to remain in effect for 50 years from the time Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997.
Despite that, many here see their separation from China slipping away — be it from the massive mainland business interests in the territory, the throngs of Chinese tourists or the impunity with which Chinese authorities have disappeared some people from Hong Kong soil.
Recent demonstrations highlight the deepening tension between Beijing’s desire to integrate the city into the mainland and Hong Kong’s fear of living under an authoritarian state. The local government has failed to act as a bulwark because the majority of the legislature and the chief executive is approved by the Chinese central government.
Faced with little recourse, Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers.
The crowds Sunday shut down major thoroughfares in the heart of this city of 7 million by marching slowly along a roughly 2-mile route that ended in a rally outside the government’s headquarters in the Admiralty district. Crowds were still assembled as midnight approached, including many Christian groups singing hymns.
Four days earlier, the site was the scene of violent clashes between riot police and mostly peaceful protesters calling for an end to the bill, which was scorned by a cross-section of Hong Kong society.
The proposed legislation would have amended a law in order to allow Hong Kong to send people to China for trial — seen as a way for Beijing to silence opposition in the semi-autonomous city.
Hong Kong protest supporters in Taipei, Taiwan, wear masks depicting bloody flowers.(Chiang Ying-ying / AP)
A man shouts slogans Sunday as he joins thousands of protesters in Hong Kong.(Hector Retamal / AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters march on a Hong Kong street Sunday.(Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
A demonstrator in Taipei, Taiwan, holds signs saying, “Support Hong Kong” and “No Extradition to China.”(Chiang Ying-ying / AP)
Protesters attend a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019. - Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Hong Kong on June 16 as public anger seethed following unprecedented clashes between protesters and police over an extradition law, despite a climbdown by the city’s embattled leader. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, CM - OUTS * NM, PH, VA if sourced by CT, LA or MoD **(Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)
A protester carries a sign with an image of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.(Hector Retamal / AFP/Getty Images)
Lam said the amendment was necessary to close a loophole that protected fugitives wanted in countries without extradition treaties with Hong Kong, including China and Taiwan. The bill was introduced in February after a Hong Kong citizen confessed to murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan and fleeing the country.
The showing on Sunday ensured Lam and her government would continue to face significant pressure despite what amounted to a major concession the day before. Beijing, which supported the bill, is generally not in the habit of relinquishing control.
The opposition to the extradition amendment has galvanized citizens like no other issue in recent memory. Even the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests began to grate on some Hong Kongers as the sit-in dragged on for three months. Support for the movement, which was sparked when China said it would pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, was often divided along generational lines.
This time, older residents have found inspiration in Hong Kong’s youth, who have been a driving force in the fight to preserve the territory’s autonomy and local identity using technology and impeccable organization. The majority of Sunday’s crowds were college- and high-school-aged citizens with a larger stake in the territory’s future.
“We come here for the younger generation,” said a 77-year-old retiree at the demonstration.
The man, who would only give his last name, So, said he wanted Lam to step down and the bill to be withdrawn because he feared it would give Beijing’s authoritarian government too much influence over Hong Kong.
“We have very long experience with the Communist Party,” he said, “and we know this is a really bad government.”
Marchers spent much of the day chanting slogans like “No extradition,” “Withdraw” and “Hong Kong add oil,” which means to keep fighting on. At one point, crowds burst into song, singing “Do you hear the people sing?” from the musical “Les Miserables.”
They also demanded that authorities refrain from calling Wednesday’s demonstrations a “riot,” a designation that increases the legal penalties for those arrested and involved.
Many of the demonstrators also carried flowers, which they placed outside a makeshift memorial in front of Pacific Place Mall in Admiralty to honor a fellow protester who fell to his death Saturday after hanging a banner on the side of the building that read “No extradition to China.”
Rescuers had set up an inflatable cushion to catch the man, but he missed it and later died in a hospital.
“No one should die for a political failure,” said a 30-year-old demonstrator near the memorial surnamed Ho. “I’m full of sorrow.”
Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Tang from Hong Kong.