Huge Hong Kong rally kicks off as public anger boils

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Crowds of black-clad protesters were mraching from a park on the main island to the city's parliament -- a repeat of a massive rally a week earlier that organisers said more than a million people attended
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AFP

Tens of thousands of people rallied in central Hong Kong on Sunday as public anger seethed following unprecedented clashes between protesters and police over an extradition law, despite a climbdown by the city’s embattled leader.

Protesters chanted “Scrap the evil law!” as they marched through the streets to pile more pressure on chief executive Carrie Lam, who paused work on the hugely divisive bill Saturday after days of mounting pressure, saying she had misjudged the public mood.

Crowds of black-clad protesters were marching from a park on the main island to the city’s parliament — a repeat of a massive demonstration a week earlier that organisers said more than a million people attended.

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

“Carrie Lam’s response is very insincere. Knowing that the government won’t withdraw the bill, I decided to come out today,” said protester Terence Shek, 39, who had brought his children on the march.

The city was rocked by the worst political violence since its 1997 handover to China on Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

“You’re supposed to protect us not shoot at us” read one banner carried on Sunday, addressing the city’s police force, while others marching held photos of police breaking up crowds in Wednesday’s clashes.

Lam stopped short of committing to permanently scrap the proposal Saturday and the concession was swiftly rejected by protest leaders, who called on her to resign, permanently shelve the bill and apologise for police tactics.

“The extradition bill being suspended only means it can be revived any time Carrie Lam wants,” said activist Lee Cheuk-yan.

Nearly 80 people were injured in this week’s unrest, including 22 police officers, and one man died late Saturday when he fell from a building where he had been holding an hours-long anti-extradition protest.

He had unfurled a banner saying: “Entirely withdraw China extradition bill. We were not rioting. Released students and the injured”.

Huge queues formed outside the high-end Pacific Place mall with flowers and written tributes piling up as demonstrators paid their respects.

Suspending the bill has done little to defuse simmering public anger and protest organisers have called for a city-wide strike Monday as well as Sunday’s rally.

Jimmy Sham, from the main protest group the Civil Human Rights Front, likened Lam’s offer to a “knife” that had been plunged into the city.

“Carrie Lam’s speech yesterday in no way calmed down public anger,” he said.

– ‘Restore calm to the community’ –

Hong Kong activist Jimmy Sham likened chief executive Carrie Lam’s offer to a ‘knife’ that had been plunged into the city

Lam’s decision to press ahead with tabling the bill for debate in the legislature on Wednesday — ignoring the record-breaking crowds three days earlier — triggered fresh protests, which brought key parts of the city to a standstill and led to violent clashes with police.

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

The protest movement has morphed in recent days from one specifically aimed at scrapping the extradition bill to a wider display of anger at Lam and Beijing over years of sliding freedoms.

A huge banner hanging from the city’s Lion Rock mountain on Sunday read “Defend Hong Kong”.

Lam had been increasingly isolated in her support for the bill, with even pro-Beijing lawmakers distancing themselves from the extradition proposals in recent days.

The Chinese government said suspending the bill was a good decision to “listen more widely to the views of the community and restore calm to the community as soon as possible”.

– ‘Keep the heat on’ –

Critics were also angry that Lam missed repeated opportunities to apologise for what many saw as heavy-handed police tactics.

Police said they had no choice but to use force to meet violent protesters who besieged their lines outside the city’s parliament on Wednesday.

But critics — including legal and rights groups — say officers used the actions of a tiny group of violent protesters as an excuse to unleash a sweeping crackdown on the predominantly young, peaceful protesters.

“The pro-democracy group will not stop at this point, they want to build on the momentum against Carrie Lam,” political analyst Willy Lam told AFP. “They will keep the heat on and ride the momentum.”

Protest leaders have called for police to drop charges against anyone arrested for rioting and other offences linked to Wednesday’s clashes.

Activist Lee said opponents feared reprisals by the government and wanted assurances “that our Hong Kong people, our protesters, are not being harassed and politically prosecuted by this government”.

Lam has argued that Hong Kong needs to reach an extradition agreement with the mainland, and says safeguards were in place to ensure dissidents or political cases would not be accepted.

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