A huge peaceful protest in Hong Kong against controversial plans to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland descended into violence yesterday as police clashed with small pockets of demonstrators outside the city’s parliament.
It was the largest protest since its 1997 handover to China and plunged the city’s pro-Beijing leaders into a crisis. Organisers said more than a million people marched in blazing summer heat through the cramped streets of the financial hub’s main island in a noisy, colourful demonstration calling on the government to scrap its planned extradition law.
The demonstration was the biggest the international finance hub has experienced since it was returned to China by Britain, beaten only by a 1.5 million-strong rally during colonial rule in 1989 supporting the Tiananmen protesters.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders are pushing a bill through the legislature that would allow extraditions to any jurisdiction with which it does not already have a treaty, including mainland China.
But the proposals have sparked an outcry and birthed an opposition that unites a wide cross-section of the city. “The government cannot ignore these numbers,” protester Peter Chan, 21, told AFP. “If they really choose not to response to our demands we will not rule out more action.”
For more than six hours on Sunday dense crowds snaked their way through the city chanting “Scrap the evil law!” and “Oppose China extradition!”, the lines of white-dressed demonstrators stretching for miles.
“There are 1,030,000 people at today’s march,” an organiser told crowds outside the city’s legislature at the march’s end, prompting a cacophony of cheers and applause as new arrivals continued to join. Police, who historically give much lower figures than organisers, put the peak crowd size at 240,000 still their second highest estimate for attendance at a protest since handover.
The city’s population is around 7.3 million and the organiser figure for Sunday’s protest outstripped 2003, when an estimated half a million demonstrators forced the government to shelve a deeply unpopular national security law.
But it is unclear if the financial hub’s current leadership will be moved. The city’s appointed leader Carrie Lam has staked her political reputation on the bill passing. Ignoring the protests could fuel anger or even a return to the unrest of 2014 when pro-democracy protesters took over key intersections of the city for two months. Organisers said yesterday they would “upgrade their actions” if the government did not drop the bill.