HONG KONG (Reuters) - Thousands of people dressed in black rallied in Hong Kong on Friday after the expiry of a deadline protesters set for the government to scrap a controversial extradition bill — the latest wave of protests to rock the Chinese-ruled city.
Demonstrators, mostly students, gathered peacefully outside the legislature in sweltering heat of about 30 degrees Celsius (86°Fahrenheit) to vent their anger and frustration at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam who promoted, and then postponed the bill after mass protests last week.
Some protesters on Friday tried to block key roads near the heart of the financial centre in scenes reminiscent of democracy protests in late 2014, sparking early morning traffic chaos.
Lam’s suspension of the bill, that would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, has done little to pacify opponents, who are demanding it be axed.
“We want to fight for our freedom,” said high school student Chan Pak-lam, 17, outside Hong Kong’s political headquarters, which was temporarily shut on Friday due to security concerns.
“We want the law to be withdrawn, not suspended. I will stay here until tonight, 10 p.m. maybe. If the government doesn’t respond, we will come again.”
Millions have clogged the streets of the financial hub this month to protest against the extradition bill, which they fear will erode Hong Kong’s legal system, triggering some of the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The protesters on Friday demanded the government drop all charges against those arrested during last week’s violent protests, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologise over the bill, which has plunged the former British colony into political turmoil.
“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” Cheng wrote in her blog on Friday.
“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”
FEARS OF CHINA MEDDLING
Since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong
has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.
But many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Embattled Lam has stopped short of axing the bill, unnerving many who fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions. Courts in mainland China are controlled by the Communist Party.
While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she has heard the people “loud and clear”, she has rejected repeated calls to step down. The snowballing backlash has raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern effectively.
Concerns over the extradition bill spread quickly from initially democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government.
Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore over the extradition bill.
“DON’T GIVE UP”
As protesters sat or lay chatting outside the government headquarters, one activist read out a letter sent from a Taiwan student in support of the demonstrators.
“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love, please believe your efforts are meaningful and powerful,” the protester read through a loud hailer, as the crowds clapped and cheered.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.
Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.
After promises that post-handover Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy, Beijing’s squeeze has fuelled widespread resentment and in 2014 sparked pro-democracy protests that paralysed parts of the city for 79 days.