Chinese media blames ‘foreign forces’ for huge Hong Kong protests

Leader Carrie Lam defends extradition Bill that critics say will empower Beijing

Riot police surrounded Hong Kong's parliament after what had been a peaceful protest, involving hundreds of thousands of people, against an extradition bill descended into running clashes between police and protesters. Video: Reuters

 

Chinese state media has said that “foreign forces” seeking “to hurt China by trying to create havoc in Hong Kong” were behind the million-strong protest on Sunday.

In one of the largest rallies since the former British colony returned to China more than two decades ago, central Hong Kong was brought to a standstill as protesters demanded a looming extradition Bill be quashed.

The government is proposing a Bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to countries where Hong Kong has no formal rendition agreement in place, including mainland China.

Under the proposal, the city’s chief executive would have legal powers to send suspects to jurisdictions not covered by existing treaties on a case-by-case basis. As the chief executive is selected by a Beijing-controlled committee, critics of the Bill say they would be obliged to support any extradition request coming from China.

Organisers of the rally say China’s justice system has a record of arbitrary detention, torture, serious violations of fair trial rights, enforced disappearances and various systems of incommunicado detention without trial. They say the proposed law would leave many who have a connection to the mainland vulnerable, including human rights defenders, journalists, NGO workers and business people.

Demonstrators, clad in white as a symbol of justice, choked the streets for several hours on Sunday, enduring a scorching 32-degree Celsius heat and humidity levels of up to 87 per cent. Organisers put the turnout at just over one million protesters, while police estimated it at about 240,000.

“The gargantuan turnout is proof that Hong Kongers still believe their city, their home is worth fighting for.” Jason Y Ng, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, told The Irish Times.

“The thought of that put a lump in my throat as I marched,” he said.

Riot police

In what was largely a peaceful protest, scenes turned ugly after midnight when the rally’s permit expired and police tried to clear protesters surrounding the Legislative Council. Some protesters formed barricades with metal barriers and bins, and hurled bottles and debris as riot police moved in with batons and pepper spray.

On Monday, state-run China Daily newspaper ran an editorial saying the protesters were just “pawns” who were “hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign”.

They were being used by anti-Beijing elements who hope to “reap political gains by damaging the . . . government’s credibility and reputation”, the paper said.

Speaking on Monday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said that despite the widespread calls for her resignation she would not be stepping down, and added she felt “duty-bound” to close loopholes in the current law and bring the proposed amendment back to the legislature for a second reading on Wednesday.

She pointed to concessions made on two occasions as the Bill was being discussed as evidence of the government’s receptive response to public concerns, and denied she had been told by Beijing to push the changes through.

In a potentially ominous sign on Monday for organisers of the anti-extradition protests, a Hong Kong court sentenced a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement to eight months in prison, suspended for two years. The judge told Tanya Chan the only reason he was suspending her sentence and not sending her to jail for public nuisance offences was because she required medical treatment for a brain tumour.

Nine leading organisers of the Umbrella Movement, including Chan, were charged in 2017 with various public nuisance charges. Four of the leaders were recently given prison terms ranging from eight to 16 months, while another four were given suspended sentences or ordered to carry out community service.

‘Dark chapter’

Amnesty International called Chan’s sentencing “the latest dark chapter in the curtailing of the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong” and called on the government to “stop abusing the law and the judicial system to criminalise peaceful protesters and silence debate on democracy and other views Beijing deems problematic”.

With regard to the Bill, Mr Ng from the Progressive Lawyers Group said that it appears now the government plans the “unprecedented” move of rushing it through the legislature by scheduling both the second and the third reading on Wednesday, and “the legislature is stacked with pro-Beijing, pro-establishment lawmakers . . . so sadly, it has enough votes to do that.

“That will not only put at risk the personal safety of Hong Kong citizens but also have a chilling effect on civil society and freedom of expression,” he said. “The result will be nothing short of devastating.”