By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN
Monday, June 10, 2019
HONG KONG -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Hong Kong on Sunday to voice their opposition to legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China where they could face politically charged trials.
Parts of the massive demonstration skirmished with police, three days before the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's government plans to bring the highly contentious bill to the full legislature in a bid to win approval by the end of the month.
Police estimated the crowd at 240,000, but organizers said more than one million took part.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary demonstrated in solidarity with Hong Kong.
The protest was one of the largest in recent Hong Kong history, underscoring fears over China's broadening footprint in the former British colony.
Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, has pushed forward the contested legislation despite widespread criticism from human rights and business groups.
The bill has been criticized as eroding Hong Kong's judicial independence by making it easier to send criminal suspects to mainland China, where they could face vague national-security charges and unfair trials.
Late Sunday night, a group of demonstrators broke through barriers at government headquarters, where the march had ended. The crowd briefly pushed its way into the lobby, but police in riot gear used batons and pepper spray to push the protesters outside.
Most had dispersed by 1 a.m., but police continued pushing protesters away for kilometres over a period of two to three hours.
There was still a strong police presence on streets throughout downtown Hong Kong as of 3 a.m.
A small group of protesters sat with hands tied on the side of Gloucester Road, surrounded by police.
People of all ages took part in the march, chanting slogans in the native Cantonese dialect in favour of greater transparency in government.
Kiwi Wong, 27, was among the throng, a member of the younger generation who've grown up enjoying relative prosperity but also growing insecurity about what many see as an erosion of the rights Hong Kong residents have enjoyed.
"If I didn't come out now, I don't know when I would have the chance to express my opinion again," Ms. Wong said. "Because now we've got to this stage, if you don't come out to try to do what you can, then it will end up too late, you won't be able to say or do anything about it."
Alex Ng, a 67-year-old retiree, said he joined the protest because "I think that there was never any public consultation about this law, and there are a lot of uncertainties."
Tommy Lam, a 29-year-old who is working on his master's degree, said: "All these people coming out and marching sends a definite message. If the government doesn't listen, there will be tension."
The Hong Kong government said in a statement late Sunday that it respected the right of its opponents to protest.
"We acknowledge and respect that people have different views on a wide range of issues," the statement 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."
Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years after its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, in what's known as the "one country, two systems" framework.
However, China's ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
Hong Kong does not have a formal extradition agreement with mainland China because of concerns over Beijing's poor record on legal independence and human rights. In recent years, mainland authorities have gone after opponents by accusing them of dubious crimes such as tax evasion.
Ms. Lam's government argued that the revisions were needed to close legal loopholes, while opponents say that is merely an excuse to pursue China's agenda of reducing Hong Kong's legal independence.
Hong Kong's Legislative Council will table the amendments on the bill on Wednesday.
"The people of Hong Kong want to protect our freedom, our freedom of speech, our rule of law, our judicial system and also our economic foundation, which is welcome to international investors," activist Lee Cheuk-yan, a former Hong Kong legislator, said on Sunday. "If international investors lose confidence in Hong Kong because of this evil bill, then Hong Kong, economically, would also be destroyed."
Hundreds of protesters in four cities across Canada - Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary - took to the streets Sunday in solidarity with those in Hong Kong.
In Vancouver, a few hundred people demonstrated in front of the Chinese consulate, many holding yellow umbrellas that were an emblem of the 2014 movement against electoral interference.
Albert Chan Wai-yip, a former member of Hong Kong's legislative council, attended the Vancouver rally and said the proposals have sparked fears among Hong Kong people as well as Canadians in Hong Kong, especially after the detention of two Canadian men in China.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were detained last December in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request from the United States.
Mr. Chan said passage of the bill could put about 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong at risk.
"It was commonly seen the arrest [of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor] was due to political reasons.
The Chinese government can do the same thing in Hong Kong if the bill is going to pass," he said.
Mr. Chan, who was involved in Hong Kong politics for more than three decades, said the Sunday protest in Hong Kong has one of the highest turnouts in the region's history. "I think the government should listen."
He called on the federal government to "do more" to oppose the proposals, to protect Canadians and Canadian businesses in the region.
Jackie Lo, an organizer of the Ottawa rally, also urged the federal government to take a tougher position on this issue.
"We hope [there] would be a stronger pressure to the Hong Kong government from the Canadian government. The [Hong Kong] government still refuse to retreat the amendment bill, so all sorts of pressure should increase to another level."
Last month, in a joint statement with her British counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland voiced concern over the Lam government's proposals.
"We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of Canadian and U.K. citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong's international reputation," the statement said. "Furthermore, we believe that there is a risk that the proposals could impact negatively on the rights and freedoms set down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration."
In April, the Canadian government said it had raised "serious questions" with the Hong Kong government.
A spokesperson with the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Toronto - the official representative of The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in Canada - didn't comment on the multicity protests in Canada and instead referred to the government's statement on the protests in Hong Kong.
People of all ages took part in the march, which organizers said totalled more than one million people while police estimated the crowd at 240,000.
Activists and police officers clash in Hong Kong on Sunday during a protest against proposed legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China.
PHOTOS BY LAM YIK FEI/THE NEW YORK TIMES