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Hong Kong leader apologises as record rally chokes city

Updated June 17, 2019

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Hong Kong: This overhead view shows thousands of protesters marching through a street to protest the extradition law proposal. — AFP
Hong Kong: This overhead view shows thousands of protesters marching through a street to protest the extradition law proposal. — AFP

HONG KONG: Some two million protesters choked Hong Kong’s streets in a powerful rebuke of a reviled extradition law, organisers said on Sunday, piling pressure on the city’s embattled pro-Beijing leader who apologised for causing “conflict” but refused to step down.

The historic show of force saw vast crowds marching for hours in tropical heat, calling for the resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam, who was forced to suspend the bill as public anger mounted.

Throngs of largely black-clad protesters snaked their way for miles through the streets to the city’s parliament — with the organiser estimate for the crowd size doubling an already record-breaking demonstration last Sunday.

Police, who historically give far lower estimates for political protests, said 338,000 people turned out at its “peak”.

As night fell the huge crowds had once more taken over multiple major thoroughfares, including outside the legislature, with the police seemingly ceding the streets to the jubilant masses.

Critics fear the Beijing-backed law will entangle people in China’s notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage the city’s reputation as a safe business hub.

Lam’s office put out a statement late on Sunday admitting that shortcomings in how her administration handled the law had “led to a lot of conflict and disputes” and “disappointed and distressed many citizens”.

It came a day after she announced she would postpone the law indefinitely.

But it fell well short of protester demands that she resign, shelve the bill permanently and apologise for police using tear gas and rubber bullets earlier in the week.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which is organising the huge rallies, said Hong Kongers would protest and strike on Monday “until their voices are heard”.

The international finance hub was rocked on Wednesday by the worst political violence in decades as protesters were dispersed by baton-wielding riot police.

Many accused the police of using excessive force, and anger was further fanned by authorities calling the largely young protesters “rioters”.

Nearly 80 people were injured in the unrest — including 22 police officers — with both sides showing a willingness to escalate action and reaction to levels unseen in the usually stable business hub.

One man died when he fell from a building where he had been holding an hours-long anti-extradition protest.

He had unfurled a banner on scaffolding attached to an upscale mall, but fell when rescuers tried to haul him in. Police said they suspected the 35-year-old was suicidal.

Throughout the day, demonstrators queued for hours to leave flowers and tributes where he fell.

The extradition furore is just the latest chapter in what many see as a battle for the soul of Hong Kong.

For the last decade the city has been convulsed by political turbulence between pro-Beijing authorities and opponents who fear an increasingly assertive China is stamping on the city’s unique freedoms and culture enjoyed since the handover in 1997.

Opposition to the extradition bill has united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong, from influential legal and business bodies to religious leaders.

Lam’s decision to ignore those warnings and press ahead with the bill even after last weekend’s massive rally placed her administration under pressure from both opponents and allies.

Advisers and pro-establishment lawmakers urged her to delay the bill after Wednesday’s violence, while Beijing began to distance itself from her administration.

Her climbdown is a rare example of the city’s unelected leaders caving-in to demonstrations — something more recent administrations have been increasingly unwilling to do.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2019