Throngs of youthful black-clad demonstrators with umbrellas, goggles and face masks blockaded major roads around Hong Kong’s legislature building on Wednesday, a surge of mass dissent against an extradition bill that, if passed, would allow city residents to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Leaderless but highly organized, protesters in their tens of thousands had been in an hours-long stand-off with riot police bearing shields and wielding batons in scenes reminiscent of the protracted Occupy Central democracy protests of late 2014.
Police used pepper spray, beanbag rounds, tear gas and even rubber bullets against protesters who defied the show of official force and refused to retreat.
The protests have symbolically erupted just after the 30-year anniversary of China’s lethal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. How the protests, if sustained, will ultimately be handled is unclear, but the stage is now set for a pivotal clash of pro- and anti-Beijing forces in China’s special administrative region.
Mass opposition to the bill has fast spiraled into a political crisis for Chief Executive Carrie Lam with escalating street protests and strikes clogging key roads near government offices three days after Hong Kong’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 drew more than one million people, according to organizers.
The bill has been widely opposed by academics, student activists, legal groups and businesspeople who are typically pro-establishment due to widespread distrust of China’s judicial system and fears that the legislation could be used to hand Hong Kong dissidents, critical journalists and pro-democracy activists to the mainland on spurious charges.
Chaotic scenes unfolded throughout the day with restive demonstrators attempting to charge through metal barricades set up at police junctions. Protesters passed medical supplies, goggles, water and food out amongst themselves earlier in the day, while others vowed to obstruct the road until the government abandons the contentious rendition bill.
“We love Hong Kong. We hope to delay the meeting today and maybe in the proceeding days we can keep on the blockade,” a 22-year-old demonstrator who called herself only Jane told Asia Times. “Hong Kong people need to fight for their rights. We don’t think the bill will be passed because we have power,” said another young protester who withheld her name.
Some protesters stayed in the area overnight, while others arrived in the morning by train to rally in and around the bridge on Harcourt Road adjacent to the Legislative Council (Legco) building and nearby streets close to Hong Kong’s financial center, where the offices of large banks such as HSBC, Bank of East Asia and Standard Chartered are located.
“The Legislative Council is trying to pass the bill and this is very unjust. I don’t know if the bill will pass but at least this is the people’s voice,” said Eric, a grey-haired 60-year-old demonstrator who donned a face mask as he walked among the crowd. “Look around and you realize that all of them are from the young generation. Because it’s their future.”
While the mass protests succeeded in delaying until further notice debate on the unpopular extradition bill that had been due to take place earlier in the day, Lam has not signaled that her administration would ultimately back down. While Legco’s pan-democrats have called for the bill to be shelved, the legislature is currently controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.
As protesters attempt to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area surrounding Legco in a last-ditch effort to kill the bill, they do so in full view of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Hong Kong garrison, a symbol of Chinese sovereignty which houses mainland military personnel who are not permitted to leave the premises.
Under fire in recent days, Lam has maintained that the proposed changes to the territory’s extradition laws – which would open the door to case-by-case extradition requests from jurisdictions including China, Taiwan and Macau – is her own initiative, not one forced on her administration by authorities in Beijing.
Despite her assurances, the controversial bill has become a flashpoint widely seen as symbolizing the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees the former British colony’s right to self-rule, an independent judicial system and democratic rights until 2047.
Pro-establishment legislators have offered assurances that human rights will be safeguarded under the new legislation, which they insist ought to be given a chance. Analysts believe Beijing’s own endorsement of the proposal, known as the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill, has reduced any room Lam may have had to maneuver.
“The administration cannot shelve the extradition bill unless Beijing relents, but it seems unlikely that to do so,” said Yew Chiew Ping, head of contemporary China studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. “It is likely to pressure the Hong Kong government to steamroll the bill through despite the large-scale protests and ongoing resistance.
“Amidst the ongoing trade war with the United States, and with foreign governments and foreign business chambers voicing their concerns over the extradition bill, Beijing also has less room to maneuver and make concessions, lest it appears to its nationalistic people that it is bowing to Western pressure or ‘foreign forces’,” she said.
Chinese state media has drawn attention to remarks made by US and British government officials opposing the rendition bill and recent past meetings with local opposition figures. A recent Global Times editorial said Western countries “more actively point an accusing finger at Hong Kong affairs, instigating the opposition to create more chaos.”
The US State Department on Monday expressed support for the weekend’s mammoth protest march, with spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus saying Washington shares the concerns of many in Hong Kong over the bill and that “the lack of procedural protections in the proposed amendments could undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, issued a scathing statement on Tuesday, saying the “horrific” and “dangerous” extradition bill “chillingly showcases Beijing’s brazen willingness to trample over the law to silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”
She stated, moreover, that if the bill is passed, the US Congress would have “no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong is ‘sufficiently autonomous’ under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” a reference to the 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act that enables the US to engage Hong Kong as a separate entity from the rest of China.
Some believe that legislation could become a bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing, though analysts say rescinding the law would deal a harsh blow to Hong Kong’s trade and financial system, while also hurting the hundreds of international businesses and American companies headquartered in the city.
“External forces are being mobilized to oppose the Hong Kong government to undermine the central government’s confidence in its governance,” believes Lawrence Ma, a barrister and member of the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing group that supports the government’s proposed changes to extradition bill.
“I don’t think the government is going to change its mind about the bill because it’s not just the Hong Kong government. They have received backing from the mainland central government,” he said, adding: “I can’t see how the protests near the Legco building would be sustainable. I don’t think it would go beyond a week.
“From the evidence available, Western governments have only supported by rhetorical statements, political statements by the parliamentarians and foreign ministry spokesmen of their countries. We haven’t had any evidence of them funding any of the protests locally,” Ma, executive chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, told Asia Times.
To others in the pro-democracy camp, allegations of foreign interference hold no water. “These claims are totally groundless. Hong Kong people are sensible, pragmatic people. Their sense of danger is genuine. People do not have confidence in the judicial system in China. Period,” says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.
“Basically, they are saying that having a fair trial when prosecuted is a basic right and they are not willing to lose this right. No one wants to be tried in mainland China for a case committed outside of mainland China,” he said, noting that neither side has shown a willingness to make concessions or compromises.
“The obvious demand is withdrawal of the bill and in view of the fact that the government is not willing to make any serious concessions, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement will change its position,” he told Asia Times. “You can see from the responses of the official media in China, the Chinese authorities will not likely back down.”
By early evening, police lines advanced on and successfully cleared Harcourt Road, according to reports, leaving umbrellas, helmets and water bottles scattered on the barren multi-lane highway. Demonstrators have reportedly taken pause in nearby malls and shopping centers to refuel and plan their next move.
“As today’s developments show, protesters seem prepared for a sustained resistance,” said Yew. “Moreover, their experience during the Umbrella Movement will also serve them well this time, such as in the mobilization of protesters, the organization of resources and how to respond to the police.”