Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader on Monday rejected to scrap a controversial plan to permit extraditions to the Chinese mainland, a day after huge crowds came out to oppose the proposal.
Striking a defiant tone after the city’s largest protest since the 1997 handover, chief executive Carrie Lam said the legislature would debate the bill on Wednesday as planned, rejecting calls to delay or withdraw the law.
The choice sets her administration on a collision course with opponents who have vowed to ramp up their protests if their demands are not met.
Sunday saw huge crowds march in blazing summer heat through the streets of the financial hub’s main island in a noisy, vibrant demonstration calling on the government to scrap its planned extradition law.
Organizers said as much as a million people turned out — the largest protest in 3 decades and the greatest by far since the city’s return to Chinese rule.
Lam’s government is pushing a bill via the legislature that would permit extraditions to any jurisdiction with which it does not already have a treaty — including mainland China.
Authorities say it is required to plug loopholes and to stop the city being a bolthole for fugitives.
But the proposals have birthed an opposition that unites a wide cross-section of the city with critics fearing the law will entangle people in China’s opaque and politicized court system.
In her first comments since the mass rallies, Lam said she had no plans to delay or modify the law.
She denied dismissing the huge public backlash and said her administration had already made the biggest concessions to ensure the city’s unique freedoms would be shielded and that human rights safeguards met international standards.
“I and my team have not ignored any views expressed on this very important piece of legislation. We have been listening and listening very attentively,” she said.
“I’ve not received any instructions or mandate from Beijing to do this bill,” she added.
Sunday’s huge rally passed without incident until soon after midnight when small pockets of protesters battled running battles with police in chaotic and brutal scenes.
Hong Kong police chief Stephen Lo blamed masked demonstrators for attempting to “storm” the parliament and vowed to pursue those who were involved.
“This is not freedom of speech or the expression of opinions,” he told reporters Monday after visiting officers who had been injured.
“We the police will definitely get to the bottom who took part in tonight’s violent protests,” he added.
Hong Kong has been convulsed by political unrest recently as fears soar that a resurgent Beijing is trying to quash the international financial hub’s unique freedoms and culture.
Under the 50-year handover deal with the British, China decided to a “one country, two systems” model where Hong Kong would keep freedom of speech and assembly rights that are unheard of on the authoritarian mainland.
But many locals believe Beijing is now reneging on that deal, aided by the city’s loyalist local government, particularly since Xi Jinping became China’s leader.
In 2014 mass democracy protests calling for the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s leader paralyzed areas of the city for more than two months with frequent clashes between police and demonstrators.
Two years later violent clashes split out in the crowded district of Mongkok when police tried to close down unlicensed street vendors. Key protest leaders have since been jailed or stopped from politics.
Many young Hong Kongers have hardened their attitudes toward China after failing to win any concessions since the 2014 protests and the aggression after Sunday’s rally fits a now familiar pattern.
Senior Chinese party leaders have spoken out in support of the extradition bill but so far Beijing has stayed silent on Sunday’s huge rally.
In an editorial, Beijing’s state-run China Daily called the law a “sensible, legitimate” piece of legislation and blamed the protests on “foreign forces .”
“Unfortunately, some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign,” the paper wrote.