FT Online

Published:
2019-06-16 12:37:49 BdST

Hong Kong braces for huge rally as public anger boils


Hong Kong was braced for another mass rally 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 in suspending the bill.

Organisers were hoping for another mammoth turnout as they vowed to keep
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.

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

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.

Lam stopped short of committing to permanently scrapping 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.

Nearly 80 people were injured in this week’s unrest, including 22 police
officers, and one protester 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”.

Flowers and written tributes were already beginning to pile up outside the
high-end Pacific Place mall, while demonstrators attending Sunday’s rally
were being urged to bring a flower to pay their respects and attend an
evening candlelit vigil.

Suspending the bill has done little to defuse simmering public anger.

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.

“It’s almost reached our heart. Now the government said they won’t push it,
but they also refuse to pull it out,” he told reporters.

– ‘Restore calm to the community’ –

On Sunday afternoon, protesters are set to march 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.

Lam’s decision to ignore that record-breaking turnout and press ahead with
tabling the bill for debate in the legislature on Wednesday then 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”.

“We remain an enclave of human rights and civil liberties at the footsteps
of a country whose leadership do not share our values or beliefs,” lawmaker
Dennis Kwok told local broadcaster RTHK ahead of Sunday’s rally.

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.

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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