Leader of government refuses to withdraw the bill, which critics fear could lead to abuse by Beijing
The leader of Hong Kong’s government has said she remains determined to pass a controversial extradition bill, despite an estimated one million people marching against the legislation on Sunday, Agencies report.
The huge march, which stretched for more than two miles, was peaceful until midnight, when police and demonstrators clashed after attempts to disperse some remaining protesters from the area outside the legislative offices.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, a key target of the rally, said the size of the rally showed there we’re “clearly still concerns“ over the bill, but the fact so many people took part in the rally showed claims that the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers, journalists and others were not being eroded.
“I think they clearly demonstrate that these rights and freedoms are as robust as ever,” she said.
Lam maintained that the widespread opposition to the bill – which included thousands of lawyers and judges – was just because people did not understand it.
“This bill is not initiated by the Central People’s government. I have not received any instruction,” she said.
Lam refused to withdraw the bill, saying: “Hong Kong has to move on, nobody wants Hong Kong to be a fugitive offenders haven.”
“We are doing it.”
Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, the second most senior member of Hong Kong’s government, said debate on the bill would resume on Wednesday and he hoped it would be “rational and peaceful”, the South China Morning Post reported.
“A small group of radical protesters took radical actions and charged the police, resulting in clashes,” he said. “We feel regret, but should condemn the violence.”
The bill creates a system for case-by-case fugitive transfers between semi-autonomous Hong Kong and regions with which it does not already have agreements, including mainland China.
Critics say the proposed law would legitimise abductions in the city and subject political opponents and activists to China’s widely criticised judicial system. They fear that a pro-Beijing Hong Kong government would not resist requests of a political nature. Numerous world governments, human rights and legal bodies have expressed concern at the bill.
But the Hong Kong administration maintains it is needed to fight crime – pegging the urgency on the case of a man wanted for the murder of his girlfriend in Taiwan – and is determined to pass the bill before July.
The New People’s Party, headed by conservative legislator Regina Ip, condemned the violence but said the orderly conduct of the march was “testimony to the robust exercise of rights and freedoms by Hong Kong people as guaranteed by the Basic Law”.
The Party reiterated its support for the bill, but in light of the large numbers demonstrating their “strong concerns”, urged the government to submit regular reports to the Legislative Council on the bill’s implementation, including on specific transfer request cases.
Late on Sunday night before any violence broke out, the government released a statement, acknowledging the rally was large, and “generally peaceful and orderly”. However it showed no sign of backing down on the bill.
“As a free, open and pluralistic society, we acknowledge and respect that people have different views on a wide range of issues,” it said.
“The procession today is an example of Hong Kong people exercising their freedom of expression within their rights as enshrined in the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance.”
The government maintained it had listened attentively to views on the bill, noting it had made two sets of amendments, but continued to defend it.
Martin Lee QC, a leading barrister, former legislator, and key figure of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, told the Guardian on Sunday he believed there would be more protests if the government did not adequately respond to the enormous public showing.
Lee said the government was “saying no to democracy and suppressing human rights and the rule of law”.
After seven hours of marching, organisers estimated that more than one million people had taken part, far outstripping a demonstration in 2003 when half that number successfully challenged government plans for tighter national security laws. A police spokesman said they estimated that 240,000 were on the march at its peak.
Tensions between police and demonstrators had been rising throughout the sweltering day, after the march was funnelled through narrow pathways, causing extensive bottlenecks and slow downs in what many believed was a deliberate attempt to frustrate.
At the end point thousands tried to push through to the waterfront park around the government buildings – but were corralled into tight roadside areas.
Hundreds of people, mainly young intended to stage a sit in until Wednesday, when the bill goes before parliament again, but when legal permissions to hold the march expired at midnight police moved in and clashes ensued.
Demonstrators hurled bottles and metal barricades and police responded with batons and pepper spray. Several people, including officers, were injured.
In the early hours of Monday hundreds of officers amassed to push out the remaining holdouts. Two young people sat in front of a row of riot police and meditated. A middle aged woman yelled in the faces of officers. But the police pushed on, eventually clearing the west side of the building by 2am, and other areas by daylight.
Police took the names of around 300 people, the South China Morning Post reported.
On Monday morning an official Chinese newspaper claimed “foreign forces” were trying to hurt China by creating chaos in Hong Kong.
In an editorial on Monday the China Daily defended the legislation. “Any fair-minded person would deem the amendment bill a legitimate, sensible and reasonable piece of legislation that would strengthen Hong Kong’s rule of law and deliver justice,” it said.
“Unfortunately, some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign.”
The publication claimed that some protesters had been misled about the proposed changes, while others were trying to promote a political agenda.
“Some foreign forces are seizing the opportunity to advance their own strategy to hurt China by trying to create havoc in Hong Kong,” the China Daily said. It did not say who those foreign forces might be.
Another Chinese newspaper, the Global Times tabloid, said on Monday Hong Kong opposition groups and their international supporters were “politically hyping up” normal Hong Kong legislative activity.
There is widespread fear of Beijing’s increasing encroachment into Hong Kong, 22 years after the city was returned from British rule to exist under the “one country, two systems” regime which guarantees it an independent legal system.