As Hong Kong prepared to start a discussion on an extradition law that would send citizens accused of wrongdoing to China for trial, a huge crowd of demonstrators organised mass protests outside government buildings and Legislative Council.
The law is a contradiction to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework that was agreed upon during Hong Kong’s handover to China from the British in 1997. It guaranteed the island city the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for a period of 50 years. Though never a bastion of democracy, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms of speech and protest denied to Chinese living in the mainland.
Protesters held posters reading “No extradition to China” and chanted “Hong Kong government, Shame on you” denouncing the proposed amendments to the extradition laws. A vote on the amended law is now scheduled for June 20.
Clashes between protesters and police
Though the protests were largely peaceful for the most part, there were reports of clashes between the protesters and police at several places. The police, it is reported, fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, while the protesters threw plastic bottles at the police.
The demonstrators, mostly young people who took a day off from work or skipped classes to join the protests, overturned barriers and tussled with police as they sought entry into the government headquarters and offices of the Legislative Council, the Associated Press reported.
Ambulances were rushed to the protest areas as some people were purportedly injured in the clashes, reported Reuters quoting Cable TV report. By evening, the violence was curtailed, but the protests continued with roads leading to government offices remaining inaccessible. Police insisted the force was necessary to fend off protesters throwing bricks and metal bars.
In a statement to reporters, Chief Secretary for Administration Mathew Cheung appealed to the protesters to not block the main roads and urged them to remain calm. He added, “I would also like to ask the people in this gathering to stay calm and leave the scene as soon as possible and not to commit any crime.”
Bejing says ‘protests were riots’
The legislature is believed to be controlled by a pro-Beijing majority, which is accused of interfering in local elections and obstructing democratic reforms.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, however, has vowed to go ahead with the legislation despite severe concerns among the nation’s business leaders that the law could undermine the freedom of the country, and erode investor confidence as well as the city’s competitive advantages.
“I have never had any guilty conscience because of this matter, I just said the initial intention of our work is still firmly right,” Lam said. She added that “perhaps it is impossible to completely eliminate worry, anxiety or controversy.”
Beijing on Thursday described the mass protests against the extradition bill as “riots”, adding that it supported the local government’s response. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang Thursday told news agency AFP that the largely peaceful protests were “an act that undermines Hong Kong’s stability. We support the Hong Kong government’s dealing with the situation in accordance with the law.”
The protests adversely affected Hong Kong’s financial markets. The benchmark Hang Seng Index closed 1.7 per cent lower, having lost as much as 2% in the afternoon, while Chinese companies in Hong Kong ended down 1.2 per cent.
Britain voices concern, China adamant
UK’s outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May called for extradition rules set out in the 1984 Sino-British agreement that respect the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Hong Kong. She said that she was concerned about the effects of the proposal which has a large population of British nationals.
Meanwhile, China has reiterated its support to the legislation. “Any actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” said Geng Shuang, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.
Comparisons with ‘Yellow Umbrella’ protest
In 2014, massive protests had erupted in the country after the Chinese government introduced a bill that the candidates for the 2017 elections must be approved by Beijing. “The Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country (China) and loves Hong Kong,” stated the decision taken by China’s National People’s Congress.
Incensed by the bill, protesters occupied Hong Kong’s most crowded districts for 70 days. It got its name `Umbrella Revolution” due to the yellow umbrella used by demonstrators to shield themselves from pepper spray used by the police to disperse the crowds.
In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally rejected the bill, and electoral reform has been stalled since then.
(with inputs from Reuters)