Demonstrators convened at the gates of the Chief Executive's Office on June 16 as Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam issued a public apology. Photo: Nile Bowie

Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam issued a public apology Sunday evening (June 16) as hundreds of thousands of protesters dressed in black clogged the city’s streets in another massive protest demanding her resignation and the scrapping of a contentious bill that would allow for the extradition of suspects to mainland China.

A day after Lam announced a surprise decision to indefinitely postpone the bill in a press conference on Saturday, the city’s leader vowed to “sincerely and humbly accept all criticism and to improve and serve the public” in a statement released at 8:30 pm as chanting crowds stood outside the gates of her office calling for her to step down.

“Carrie Lam’s press conference yesterday just made Hong Kong people angrier. We don’t think she will step down, but we must force her out,” said 27-year-old Chiew minutes before demonstrators began marching from Victoria Park in the scorching afternoon heat with the aim of forcing the government to rescind, rather than postpone, the controversial bill.

Gripped by a surge of mass dissent, the Asian financial hub has been thrust into political crisis amid the largest political demonstrations and some of the worst scenes of violence since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. Organizers from the Civil Human Rights Front said almost two million people took part in Sunday’s march.

Police estimates put the figure at 338,000, higher than the 240,00 estimated by authorities at the previous Sunday’s march, which organizers said were attended by 1.03 million people. The sheer volume of people present on Sunday saw the march spill over from its designated route into smaller neighboring roads, bringing many of them to a complete standstill.

Protesters against the extradition bill in front of a Victorias Secret shop in central Hong Kong, June 16, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

Dense crowds reached the Legislative Council (Legco) building, the semi-autonomous territory’s legislature and nearby government offices by early evening with demonstrators occupying the adjacent Harcourt Road bridge for the second time since Wednesday (June 12), when police used pepper spray, beanbag rounds, tear gas and even rubber bullets to retake the thruway.

In sharp contrast to the tense standoff and occupation five days earlier, the mood at the protester-thronged bridge was distinctly relaxed and celebratory with drum circles jamming and scores of tired, mostly young, demonstrators seated on the pavement checking their phones, texting their friends and reading news coverage of the day’s events.

Police kept a low profile at the march on Sunday in the wake of earlier violence on June 12 that saw at least 81 people hospitalized with injuries, incensing the public and triggering a sit-in protest on Friday night attended by an estimated 6,000 concerned mothers.

The city’s police stand accused of using excessive force against the student-aged protesters, charges they have denied.

“I can’t believe they are our policeman,” said Nina, 54, who also joined last Sunday’s march with her husband and children. Stephen Lo, the city’s Commissioner of Police, denied accusations of “excessive force” a day after the violent clashes and said weapon-wielding protesters caused injuries to 22 of his officers.

As Sunday’s marchers chanted “Make Love, No Shoot” and carried white carnation flowers and placards condemning police conduct, they reiterated their opposition to the unpopular rendition bill with shouts of “No China Extradition” amid fears the bill would give Beijing a freer hand to target political opponents and foreign businesspeople on the self-ruled island.

A man holds a police brutality placard featuring a graphic photo of an injured demonstrator outside the Central Government Office Conference Hall, June 16, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

The legislation 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.

“We have confidence. We believe the bill will be scrapped because Hongkongers are coming out and fighting for their values, freedom of speech and freedom of protest,” 17-year-old Tyler told Asia Times. When asked about Lam’s political fortunes after protests forced her to backpedal on the bill, the student-protestor tersely replied: “She’s doomed.”

Both in public and in private, Lam appeared to be in no mood to compromise on the planned extradition law, known as the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill, an initiative she personally championed since February on grounds of fighting transnational crime and closing a long-standing legal “loophole” vis-à-vis extradition with the mainland.

She has been dogged by allegations that the rendition bill was undertaken at Beijing’s behest, rather than being a local government initiative, a suggestion Chinese officials have publicly rejected. Analysts believe, however, that Beijing’s confidence in the Lam administration has been shaken over its handling of the extradition debacle.

“Carrie Lam’s days are numbered in the sense that Beijing has lost confidence,” says Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “She won’t be fired tomorrow. There will be a grace period, a face-saving period, but basically her life-long ambition of being a two-term chief executive is now totally dead.

Protest organizers said almost two million people took part in a mammoth June 16 protest march against a proposed bill allowing for extradition to mainland China; city officials put the figure at around 300,000. Photo: Nile Bowie

“Beijing has lost confidence in Lam’s ability to handle this and it fears that if she were to press ahead, it would bring back the Umbrella Movement of 2014,” he said in reference to the largest and most protracted episode of civil disobedience in Hong Kong’s history, which saw parts of the former British colony occupied by student protesters for 79 days.

Protest movements have in the past successfully rallied against controversial proposed laws regarded as encroachment by Beijing, such as in 2003 when a national security law to ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion was shelved, forcing Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-handover leader of Hong Kong, to truncate his time in office.

The city’s independent common law-based legal system functions separately from the mainland’s Communist Party-controlled courts under the “one country, two systems” principle. Many in business and diplomatic communities feared Lam’s hasty push for the extradition bill would erode the “firewall” separating the two legal systems.

“I think they underestimated the opposition to the bill from both the domestic business sector and also the multinationals in Hong Kong, it had been a very incompetent and misguided series of actions taken by the administration to try to ram through the very unpopular legislation within such a short time.

“I think Beijing gave her the instruction to back down,” Lam told Asia Times.

“The Hong Kong government has to find a way of de-escalating the tensions in society, but it also seems under pressure from Beijing to exert more control over Hong Kong society. These two objections are in tension with each other,” believes Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Black-clad demonstrators occupy the Harcourt Road bridge adjacent to Hong Kong’s legislature and government offices for the second time in a week on June 16, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

Elite anxieties about the proposed rendition law and the authority it would give mainland Chinese courts to request Hong Kong courts to freeze and confiscate assets related to crimes committed on the mainland have, according to reports, prompted an uptick in capital flight and personal wealth outflows offshore.

“The concession to pause the bill indefinitely is a way for the Hong Kong government and, by extension, Beijing, to save face,” he said. “As long as the bill remains a possibility, it will not sufficiently mollify Hongkongers and the business community. The fundamental question of subjecting people in or transiting Hong Kong to the mainland legal system remains.”

“I wouldn’t say that Lam has retreated on the extradition bill,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Asia Times. “She is clearly keeping it on the table – officially suspending or postponing it – instead of outright terminating the bill. That decision has led to heightened speculation over her true motives.”

Since the extradition bill has yet to be explicitly withdrawn, many regard Lam’s move to postpone the contentious legislation as insincere and ultimately aimed at diffusing political sentiment until conditions allow for the proposed amendments to be repackaged or introduced through other means in the future.

“The more likely scenario is the Hong King government puts the extradition bill on ice for a lengthy period of time, maybe even years, to allow the tense situation to cool off. If and when it comes back, it is likely to be repackaged. For example, the extradition part could be buried in a law that has a different main topic,” Grossman said.

While Lam’s credibility is severely tarnished and her ability to continue to lead the city is now in question, it is still unclear whether protests will achieve their goal of dislodging the territory’s first-ever female leader. In the near term, Grossman believes her signature extradition initiative “has, in any form, simply become too radioactive to bring up again” any time soon.

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