Beijing: Over a million people marched through Hong Kong city streets on Sunday evening in a massive protest against a bill that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China.
Violence erupted after midnight, as thousands of students attempted a sit-in outside Hong Kong’s legislative council after the march, but were dispersed by police in riot gear using pepper spray and batons.
The organiser’s estimate of 1.03 million people marching the three kilometres from Victoria Park would make it the biggest protest since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.
At handover, China and Britain had agreed Hong Kong would operate under “One Country, Two Systems”, allowing Hong Kong’s limited government control over immigration, borders and a separate legal system.
Hearings on the bill begin on Wednesday, as it is rushed through Hong Kong’s legislative council.
A strong pushback from business groups, foreign diplomats, lawyers and universities has already seen it redrafted to raise the threshold for extradition to serious crimes for which a suspect faces a minimum seven years jail.
Amid fears that political opponents and dissidents could be extradited under the proposed law, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s government said in a statement on Sunday: “No surrender will be considered for a political offence or if the purported charges are in fact on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinions.”
Yet the public has remained unconvinced by Lam’s explanation that the bill, which is backed by Beijing, was needed to prevent Hong Kong becoming a “bolt-hole for criminals”. The turnout on Sunday was more than double that expected by organisers.
The huge public protest, the equivalent of one in seven Hong Kong residents, should put pressure on Lam to withdraw the extradition bill, its opponents said.
“In any place where there are 1.03 million people marching… any government should listen to people’s demands,” said Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, from the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the march.
In 2003, a march by 500,000 Hong Kong people opposing a national security law resulted in the bill being dropped.
Legislative council member Ray Chan wrote on social media that Lam’s government had angered a million Hong Kongers. “If they have any shame, they should resign the first thing in the morning.”
But a government statement released at 11pm insisted the parliamentary debate on the bill would resume on June 12, as planned.
“We urge the Legislative Council to scrutinise the bill in a calm, reasonable and respectful manner to help ensure Hong Kong remains a safe city for residents and business,” it said.
Many Hong Kong residents posted images of the protest to social media, commenting they had never seen a march of this size, although police put the attendance at 270,000.
Protesters had to wait hours in the heat at Victoria Park for their turn to march down the city streets towards Admiralty. As subway stations became crowded, people took to ferries to reach Hong Kong island.
The protest started at 3pm, but the last marchers didn’t reach the government office area of Admiralty until around 10pm.
Late in the evening, a sit-in was attempted by thousands of protesters wearing white shirts for justice at the Legislative Council, near the end point of the march.
Demosisto, the student political party formed by the Umbrella movement’s founders Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, said students would stay there and would demand a dialogue with Lam before June 12.
The march was approved by police until midnight on Sunday, and soon after the permit expired large numbers of police moved in to the Legislative Council area and told the students to disperse. Barricades were thrown at police by protesters, some wearing pollution masks. Police used batons, pepper spray and tear gas against the protesters.
Democracy advocates who hold illegal protests in Hong Kong have faced increased legal action. The leaders of the Occupy movement that brought the city centre to a standstill for several months in 2014 were recently jailed.
International television news channels reporting the mass protest in Hong Kong were blacked out in mainland China.