HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands rallied in Hong Kong on Sunday driven by deep-seated anger at the government’s handling of an extradition bill which has revived fears of Beijing attempting to erode freedoms in the former British colony.
Millions have taken to the streets over the past month in some of the largest and most violent protests in decades over an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
Demonstrators marched in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (89.6°F) in Sha Tin, a town between Hong Kong island and the border with China, as the protests sweep outwards from the heart of the financial center into surrounding neighborhoods.
“These days there is really no trust of China, and so the protesters come out,” said Jennie Kwan, 73.
“Didn’t they promise 50 years, no change? And yet we’ve all seen the changes. I myself am already 70-something years old. What do I know about politics? But politics comes to you.”
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees its people freedoms for 50 years that are not enjoyed in mainland China, including the liberty to protest and an independent judiciary.
Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong affairs, but many residents worry about what they see as an erosion of those freedoms and a relentless march toward mainland control.
Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, has said the bill is “dead”, but opponents say they will settle for nothing short of its formal withdrawal.
Some protesters at Sunday’s event waved banners appealing to US President Donald Trump to “Please liberate Hong Kong” and “Defend our Constitution”, scenes certain to rile Beijing which has been angered by criticism from Washington and London over the bill.
Others waved British and American flags, while banners calling for independence for Hong Kong billowed in the wind from makeshift flagpoles.
One placard featured a picture of Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the words: “Extradite to China, disappear forever.”
Chants of “Carrie Lam go to hell,” rang through the crowd.
The bill triggered outrage across broad sections of Hong Kong society amid concerns it would threaten the much-cherished rule of law that underpins the city’s international financial status. Young, elderly and families joined the latest protest.
The protests have fueled the former British colony’s biggest political crisis since China regained control of Hong Kong, and pose a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing.
“I never missed a march so far since June,” said a 69-year-old man who gave only his surname, Chen, referring to the wave of protests.
“I support the youngsters, they have done something we haven’t done. There is nothing we can do to help them, but come out and march to show our appreciation and support.”
Protesters are also demanding that Lam step down, the withdrawal of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the unconditional release of those arrested and an independent investigation into complaints of police brutality.
One woman, in her mid-50s, said protesters had harassed her after she tried to defend the police, whom activists described as “dogs”.
“It’s verbal violence,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Catherine. “People just surrounded me and shouted rude language and that makes me feel I am living in fear.”
Controversy over the bill triggered mass protests since June, before morphing into demonstrations over democracy and broader grievances in society.
On Saturday, a largely peaceful demonstration in a town close to the Chinese border turned violent as protesters hurled umbrellas and hardhats at police, who retaliated by swinging batons and firing pepper spray.
The government condemned violence during Saturday’s protests against so-called “parallel traders” from the mainland who buy goods in bulk in Hong Kong, to carry into China for profit.
It said that during the last 18 months it had arrested 126 mainland visitors suspected of infringing the terms of their stay by engaging in parallel trading, and barred about 5,000 mainland Chinese also suspected of involvement.
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of journalists joined a silent march to demand better treatment from police at protests.
Image: Anti-extradition bill protesters march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu