HONG KONG — A highly controversial legislative measure in Hong Kong that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China has pushed the former British colony to its biggest political crisis in years.
A march to protest the measure drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets Sunday and stretched into Monday, with critics of the bill viewing the changes as part of a steady erosion of their civil liberties.
While Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam says the legislation will help the semi-autonomous Chinese territory protect human rights, opponents say the changes would significantly compromise its legal independence, long viewed as one of its key distinctions from mainland China.
“We still feel very different from China,” said retired public servant Ronny Chan, who was watching a soccer game in a park in the Wanchai district. “The politicians in Beijing have no idea about us, and I don’t think they really care.”
In what was likely Hong Kong’s largest protest in more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of people shut down the heart of the skyscraper-studded city on Sunday, three days before the Legislative Council is slated to take up the bill.
Critics believe the legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of becoming entrapped in China’s murky judicial system, in which political opponents have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security transgressions. Opponents say that once charged, suspects may face unfair proceedings in a system where the vast majority of criminal trials end in conviction.
“It’s the culmination of about six weeks of mounting concern,” Hong Kong Bar Association Chair Philip Dykes said in an interview. “There is a dissatisfaction with it all.”
Opponents of the amendments are largely drawn from Hong Kong’s middle class, who boast high education levels but have had to contend with skyrocketing housing prices and stalemated incomes.
The demonstrations refocused attention on Hong Kong, whose residents have long bristled at what many see as efforts by Beijing to tighten control. The protests dominated newspaper front pages in a city that allows far more freedom of expression than other parts of China.
Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years under an agreement reached before its 1997 return to China from British rule. But China’s ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by pushing through unpopular legal changes.
Lam told reporters Monday that the legislation will help Hong Kong uphold justice and fulfill its international obligations. Safeguards added in May will ensure that the legislation protects human rights, she said.
She said the bill seeks to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives and is not focused on mainland China, adding that Western democracies have accused Hong Kong of failing to address issues such as money laundering and terrorist financing.
The extradition law amendments would allow Hong Kong to send people to mainland China to face charges, spurring criticism that defendants in the Chinese judicial system won’t have the same rights as they would in Hong Kong.
Lam said Sunday’s protest shows Hong Kong’s enduring commitment to its people’s freedoms. She denied that she is taking orders from the central government in China’s capital.
“I have not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing to do this bill,” she said. “We were doing it — and we are still doing it — out of our clear conscience, and our commitment to Hong Kong.”
People of all ages took part in the march. Some pushed strollers while others walked with canes, and chanted slogans in favor of greater transparency in government. The protest was largely peaceful, though there were a few scuffles with police as demonstrators broke through barriers at government headquarters and briefly pushed their way into the lobby. Police in riot gear used batons and tear gas to push the protesters outside.
Three officers and one journalist were injured, according to Hong Kong media reports.
There was a heavy police presence on downtown streets deep into the night. Authorities said 19 people were arrested in connection with the clashes.
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements or to others on an individual basis under a law passed before 1997. China was excluded because of concerns over its poor record on legal independence and human rights.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China firmly backs the proposed amendments and opposes “the wrong words and deeds of any external forces” that interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.
“Certain countries have made some irresponsible remarks” about the legislation, Geng said, without elaborating.
Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing Hong Kong elites. Critics have accused her of ignoring widespread opposition to the extradition law amendments.
Agnes Chow, a prominent Hong Kong activist who opposes the bill, said Lam “ignored the anger of more than a million Hong Kong citizens.”
“Not only me, but I believe most Hong Kong people have felt really angry with Carrie Lam’s response to our rally,” Chow told reporters in Tokyo, where she arrived Monday to appeal to Japanese media and politicians.