Several hundred thousand people jammed Hong Kong’s streets on Sunday in the biggest rally for years to thwart a proposed extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial.
Organizers said their initial estimates put the turnout at well over half a million people, saying it outstripped a demonstration in 2003 when 500,000 hit the streets to challenge government plans for tighter national security laws.
Those laws were later shelved and a key government official forced to resign. Sunday’s outpouring was widely expected to raise the pressure on the administration of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her official backers in Beijing.
Lam had yet to comment on the rally, which followed weeks of domestic discontent growing official concern from the U.S., European Union and foreign business lobbies that the changes would dent Hong Kong’s vaunted rule of law and freedoms.
The former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 amid guarantees of autonomy and various freedoms including a separate legal system, which many diplomats and business leaders believe is the city’s strongest remaining asset.
The unusually broad opposition to the rendition bill displayed on Sunday came amid a series of government moves to deepen links between southern mainland China and Hong Kong.
Police had yet to issue their own estimate of the protest size. But as tens of thousands reached the Legislative Council in the Admiralty business district, the starting point in Victoria Park was crowded with thousands more still waiting to join the march.
Streets were packed along the route; Reuters witnesses at various key points estimated the crowd at several hundred thousand strong.
Chants of “no China extradition, no evil law” echoed through the highrise city streets, while other marchers called for Hong Lam and other senior officials to step down.
‘I come here to fight’
The genial crowd included young families pushing babies in prams as well as the elderly braving 32 C heat, some spraying each other with water misters.
Opposition to the proposed bill has united a broad range of the community, from usually pro-establishment business people and lawyers to students, pro-democracy figures and religious groups.
Insurance agents, executives and small entrepreneurs joined bus drivers and mechanics, with Reuters speaking to dozens of people saying it was their first protest march.
“I come here to fight,” said a wheelchair-bound, 78-year-old man surnamed Lai, who was among the first to arrive.
School teacher Garry Chiu joined the protest with his wife and one-year-old daughter, saying “it is no longer about me.”
“I need to save my daughter. If the law is implemented anyone can disappear from Hong Kong. No one will get justice in China. We know there is no human rights,” he said.
“The extradition bill will directly threaten the core values of Hong Kong and rule of law,” said 21-year-old Kelvin Tam, a student in London. “It will remove the firewall of Hong Kong judicial independence.”
Concerns over Chinese court system
Sunday protests were also being planned in 25 cities globally, including London, Sydney, New York and Chicago.
The changes will simplify case-by-case arrangements to allow extradition of wanted suspects to jurisdictions, including mainland China, Macau and Taiwan, beyond the 20 that Hong Kong already has extradition treaties with.
“It’s a proposal, or a set of proposals, which strike a terrible blow … against the rule of law, against Hong Kong’s stability and security, against Hong Kong’s position as a great international trading hub,” Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, said on Thursday.
Opponents of the plan say they deeply question the fairness and transparency of the Chinese court system and worry about security forces contriving charges.
Foreign governments have also expressed concern, warning of the impact on Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial hub, and noting that foreigners wanted in China risk getting ensnared in Hong Kong.
The concerns were highlighted on Saturday with news that a local high court judge had been reprimanded by the chief justice after his signature appeared on a public petition against the bill.
Reuters reported earlier that several senior Hong Kong judges were concerned about the changes, noting a lack of trust in mainland courts as well as the limited nature of extradition hearings.
Human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concerns about the use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China.
Hong Kong officials have defended the plans, even as they raised the threshold of extraditable offences to crimes carrying penalties of seven years or more.
They say the laws carry adequate safeguards, including the protection of independent local judges who will hear cases before any approval by the Hong Kong chief executive. No-one will be extradited if they face political or religious persecution or torture, or the death penalty.
“We continue to listen to a wide cross-section of views and opinions and remain to open to suggestions on ways to improve the new regime,” a government official said on Sunday.