Hong Kong braces for another mass rally Sunday as public anger seethe 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 are hoping for another mammoth turnout as they vowed to keep the pressure on chief executive Carrie Lam, who suspended 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 international finance hub 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 and the concession was swiftly rejected by protest leaders, who called on her to resign, permanently shelve the bill and apologise for police tactics.
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.
– “Keep the heat on” –
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 in which organisers said more than a million people turned out.
Lam’s decision to ignore that record-breaking turnout and press ahead with tabling the bill for debate in the legislature on Wednesday was the spark that lit the clashes which brought key parts of the city to a standstill.
The protest movement has morphed in recent days from one specifically aimed at scrapping the extradition bill, to a wider movement of anger at Lam and Beijing over years of sliding freedoms.
“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.”
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.
Anger has also been fanned by Lam and senior officers calling the street demonstrators “rioters”.
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.
Opposition to the bill united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong from influential legal and business bodies to religious leaders and western nations.