Protest erupted in the streets in reaction to Hong Kong’s city’s legislature postponing debate on an extradition bill, which many people fear will undermine freedoms and confidence in the commercial hub. Hong Kong’s China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam urged a swift restoration of order but vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite the reservations about it, including within the business community.
The protests began on Sunday in what organizers said drew more than a million people for the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule. Authorities shut government offices in the financial district, which is overlooked by the towers of some of Asia’s biggest firms and hotel chains, for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong in decades. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s huge march, said it was planning another demonstration this Sunday.
The 1997 handover included a deal to preserve special autonomy until the city is formally part of China in the year 2047, but many in Hong Kong accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms and interference in local elections. The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, has sparked concern it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.
Beijing rejected accusations of meddling and Chinese state media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the bill. The English-language China Daily said the “lawlessness” would hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its law.
Ms. Lam and her officials say the law is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards. Opponents of the bill, including lawyers and rights groups, say China’s justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions and arbitrary detention. Democratic city legislators condemned Lam and what they said was heavy-handed police action.
Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Wednesday in a series of skirmishes to clear demonstrators from the legislature. Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said what began as a peaceful gathering on Wednesday had degenerated into a riot with protesters “acting violently in an organized manner”. Police arrested 11 people and fired about 150 tear gas canisters at the crowd. The city’s hospital authority said a total of 81 people were injured in the protests. 22 police were injured according to Commissioner Lo. Police also later arrested two students at the University of Hong Kong after a raid on a student hall of residence, according to an official at the university.
On Monday, the United States’ State Department said it was gravely concerned about the proposed amendments to the extradition laws, warning they could jeopardize Hong Kong’s special status. Senior congressional lawmakers from both parties responded to the crisis by introducing legislation that would require the US government to provide an annual justification for the continuation of special business and trade privileges afforded to Hong Kong. Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, one of 13 co-sponsors of the proposed legislation, said in a statement, “If the extradition bill moves forward and Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic institutions continue to erode due to interference from the Chinese government, the Congress has no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong can receive preferential economic and trade benefits under U.S. law.”