A temporary calm had returned to Hong Kong Monday Morning, hours after the city stunned its leaders and the world with a second record-breaking protest in a week against a controversial extradition bill with China.
Both worker and student strikes have been called for Monday, and hundreds of protesters were still around central government offices in Admiralty. Protesters have made clear that if the government does not take further action, either with resignations of key officials or fully withdrawing the bill, then they will take to the streets again.
The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, officially suspended passage of the bill Saturday, following violent clashes between protesters and police earlier in the week. Many had expected the pause and the heavy use of force by police would sap numbers Sunday.
They could not have been more wrong.
Organizers said around 2 million people joined the march, exceeding last week’s 1.03 million. A sea of black-clad protesters filled the streets between the starting point in Victoria Park and the legislature in Admiralty. It took more than eight hours for the last group of marchers to reach the end point.
Many of those in attendance said they felt compelled to march Sunday after seeing images of bloodied protesters at previous demonstrations. Many carried signs with the slogan “Stop Killing Us” and “Civilian, No Headshot Please.” Others carried bunches of white flowers to honor a man who died after falling from a building Saturday.
Police said that 338,000 people followed the protest’s original route. At least three additional streets on either side were filled with protesters, however, and overhead photos showed a far larger crowd than last week or a march in 2003, previously the city’s largest ever protest under Chinese rule.
The mood on Sunday’s march was completely different to the angry and tense scenes on Wednesday, when protesters seized control of key streets around the legislature, holding them until they were cleared by police using tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
In a clear change in tactics, policing around Sunday’s march was nearly invisible. Those officers that could be seen were not dressed in riot gear and mainly kept themselves to directing traffic.
Protesters too did not come geared for trouble, almost none wore face coverings and only a tiny minority had helmets and other protective gear.
When small groups did attempt to stir a more forceful reaction outside central government headquarters, they were shouted down by the rest of the crowd, “keep the peace.”
In a neat piece of timing that will come as an added blow to Hong Kong’s government, pro-democracy icon Joshua Wong walked free from prison Monday, after serving one month of a two month sentence related to protests in 2014.
“It’s really good timing to join the fight for freedom and democracy,” he told CNN after his release. “Five years ago after the end of the Umbrella Movement, we claimed we would be back. Yesterday two million people came to the streets … it shows Hong Kong people realize this is a long term battle.”
Wong echoed protesters’ calls for the city’s Beijing-backed leader to resign.
“Why did Carrie Lam need to wait to suspend the bill until one million people came to the streets, it’s because she’s not elected by the people of Hong Kong,” he said. “It’s time for her to step down.”
Wong added that he thought Beijing too must be looking at the chaos in Hong Kong — amid the US-China trade war and other headaches for President Xi Jinping — and wondering about Lam’s future.
“Hong Kong is just a small international city with seven million citizens, but two million people came to the streets, it shows that we have the consensus,” he said. “She has to end her political career.”
Wong predicted that if the bill is not fully withdrawn and key officials resign, then protests could continue, particularly on July 1, the anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule and a key annual date for pro-democracy marches.
On Saturday, Lam, the chief executive, said passage of the bill would be suspended and a second reading due to take place this month canceled. There is no timeline for discussions around the bill to resume, Lam said, and she indicated it likely will not pass this year.
Such a delay will likely kill the bill in its current form as 2020 is an election year in Hong Kong and directly-elected pro-government lawmakers have already warned the controversy over the law could cost them their seats.
In 2003, an anti-sedition law which sparked previously the largest protests in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule was also suspended first before eventually being scrapped altogether.
Faced with yet another huge protest over her handling of the bill, Lam issued a rare apology Sunday night, admitting “deficiencies” in the government’s work had led to “substantial controversies and disputes in society,” causing disappointment and grief for citizens of Hong Kong.
A statement released Sunday by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the organizers of the most recent protest, said the people of Hong Kong would keep protesting until the government withdraws the extradition bill in its entirety, retracts the characterization of Wednesday’s protests as a “riot” and releases arrested protesters and withdraws all charges.
“Should the government refuse to respond, only more Hong Kongers will strike (on Monday),” CHRF said.
Police and those marchers who had stayed out overnight had a brief standoff Monday morning, with protesters eventually agreeing to move off the main Harcourt Road and allow traffic to resume, occupying a side road next to central government offices instead. Both those offices and the city’s legislature were closed Monday.
Speaking to CNN Monday, Regina Ip, a member of Lam’s cabinet, said she had urged the Chief Executive to formally withdraw the bill and apologize for the chaos which has gripped Hong Kong in recent weeks.
“The advice we gave her is that she needs to apologize in person,” Ip said. However, she added that Lam still has the support of Beijing and her ministers.
“It’s not too difficult to submit a resignation letter, I have done that myself … but it’s more difficult to stay behind and take care of the aftermath,” Ip said.
“We would like her to continue to hold the fort … it’s not easy to deal with the fallout and clean up this mess. I think she should do her duty.”
Although Hong Kong is part of China, it has a different legal system — a concept known as “one country, two systems.”
Pro-democracy figures said the bill, championed by the pro-Beijing Lam government, would lead to the erosion of civil rights in Hong Kong, including freedom of speech and rule of law.
“We are afraid that we will become a mainland city,” lawmaker Fernando Cheung said Thursday. “We would no longer have rule of law, our own autonomy.”
Throughout the debate Lam has maintained that the bill is necessary to ensure that Hong Kong does not become a sanctuary for fugitives running from justice in mainland China.
Hong Kong’s legislative council is due to go on summer recess July 20 before beginning again in October.