Hong Kong leader apologises as massive rally chokes city

Published: Jun 17, 2019, 09:53 IST | Agencies

The show of force saw huge crowds marching for hours in tropical heat, calling for the resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam, who was forced to suspend the bill as public anger mounted

Hong Kong leader apologises as massive rally chokes city
Thousands of protesters dressed in black take part in another rally against the extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on Sunday. Pic/AFP

Hong Kong: Hundreds of thousands of protesters choked Hong Kong's streets for a second straight Sunday in a defiant rebuke of a reviled extradition law, piling pressure on the city's embattled pro-Beijing leader who apologised for causing "conflict" but refused to step down. The show of force saw huge crowds marching for hours in tropical heat, calling for the resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam, who was forced to suspend the bill as public anger mounted.

Throngs of black-clad protesters snaked their way for miles through the streets to the city's parliament -- a repeat of a record-breaking demonstration last Sunday that organisers said more than a million people attended. As night fell the huge crowds had once more taken over multiple major thoroughfares, including outside the legislature, with the police seemingly ceding the streets to the jubilant masses. Critics fear the Beijing-backed law will entangle people in China's notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage the city's reputation as a safe business hub.

Lam's office put out a statement late Sunday admitting that shortcomings in how her administration handled the law had "led to a lot of conflict and disputes" and "disappointed and distressed many citizens". "The chief executive apologises to the citizens and promises to accept criticism with the most sincere and humble attitude," it said. It came a day after she announced she would postpone the law indefinitely. Still, Sunday's statement fell well short of demands that she resign, shelve the bill permanently and apologise for police using tear gas and rubber bullets earlier in the week. "Hong Kong people feel that she's not sincere and continues to be extremely arrogant," political analyst Dixon Sing told AFP.

"I don't think the anger will subside." The international finance hub was rocked Wednesday by the worst political violence in decades as protesters were dispersed by baton-wielding riot police. Many accused the police of using excessive force and anger was further fanned by authorities calling the largely young protesters "rioters". Nearly 80 people were injured in the unrest -- including 22 police officers -- with both sides showing a willingness to escalate action and reaction to levels unseen in the usually stable business hub. One man died late Saturday when he fell from a building where he had been holding an hours-long anti-extradition protest. He had unfurled a banner on scaffolding attached to an upscale mall, but fell when rescuers tried to haul him in. Police said they suspected the 35-year-old was suicidal. Throughout the day, demonstrators queued for hours to leave flowers and tributes where he fell. The extradition furore is just the latest chapter in what many see as a battle for the soul of Hong Kong. For the last decade the city has been convulsed by political turbulence between pro-Beijing authorities and opponents who fear an increasingly assertive China is stamping on the city's unique freedoms and culture enjoyed since the handover in 1997.

Opposition to the extradition bill has united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong, from influential legal and business bodies to religious leaders. Lam's decision to ignore those warnings and press ahead with the bill even after last weekend's massive rally placed her administration under pressure from both opponents and allies. Advisers and pro-establishment lawmakers urged her to delay the bill after Wednesday's violence, while Beijing began to distance itself from her administration. Her climbdown is a rare example of the city's unelected leaders caving-in to demonstrations -- something more recent administrations have been increasingly unwilling to do. Two months of protests in 2014 calling for the right to directly elect Hong Kong's leader won no concessions from Beijing, and key figures from that movement are now in jail. Estimates of Sunday's crowd size will not be available until later Sunday, but the last marchers to leave the rally's starting point at a public park left some six hours after it started.

Earlier in the day, activists hung a huge banner from Lion Rock mountain that read "Defend Hong Kong". "Personally I think she can no longer govern Hong Kong, she has lost the public," Dave Wong, a 38-year-old protester who works in finance, told AFP. "She has pretended not to hear or see our troubles or the injured protesters, and even called them rioters -- this makes us Hong Kong residents furious," added demonstrator Calvin Wong. In mainland China, the internet was scrubbed clean of references to the massive rally, with entries for Hong Kong on search engines and social media platforms showing no sign of the demonstration. Police said they had no choice but to use force Wednesday to meet violent protesters who besieged their lines outside the city's parliament. But critics -- including legal and rights groups -- say officers used the violent actions of a tiny group of protesters as an excuse to unleash a sweeping crackdown on the predominantly young, peaceful crowd.

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