Protesters in Hong Kong call for leader's resignation over extradition bill

Protesters in Hong Kong have gathered outside the office of leader Carrie Lam, demanding that she resign for her handling of an unpopular extradition bill.

Carrie Lam apologized for crisis, suspended work on bill

A woman protests next to police officers outside Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's office during a demonstration demanding her resignation. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Protesters in Hong Kong have gathered outside the office of the leader, demanding that she resign for her handling of an unpopular extradition bill.

The mostly young demonstrators blocked a street Monday near the waterfront as they stood outside the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, chanting calls for her to give up the proposed legislation.

Lam apologized for the crisis and suspended work on the bill, which would allow suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.

Protesters are demanding that she scrap the bill and that authorities apologize for how police quelled an earlier demonstration, using tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful means. They also want the government not to prosecute those involved, and to withdraw Lam's designation of the protest as a "riot."

The activists have rejected an apology from Lam for her handling of the legislation, which has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.

"We are very angry that Carrie Lam has not responded to the demands of all the protesters, but now is the time to talk about strategy, and talk about strategy is to how about how to make the whole struggle into a long-term struggle and not a day struggle, so if Carrie Lam does not respond to the five demands by the protesters, people will come back and the struggle will continue," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former legislator and activist.

However, a senior government official close to Lam told Reuters that Beijing will not let her step down even if she wanted to. "It's not going to happen," said the official, who has been involved in meetings on the political crisis.

The official declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

Shortly after daybreak, the police asked for co-operation in clearing the road but said the protesters could stay on the sidewalks.

For a time, the protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers.

Demonstrators gathered again on Monday after a weekend of protests calling for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down and for the revocation of a controversial extradition bill. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Activists had called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.

Nearly two million of Hong Kong's seven million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the "peak period" of the march.

A week earlier as many as one million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong's relations with mainland China in one of the toughest tests of the territory's special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.

The scenes were similar to those seen nearly five years earlier, when protesters camped for weeks in the streets to protest rules that prevented the direct election of the chief executive, the top local official.

Former student leader Joshua Wong walks out from prison after being jailed for his role in Occupy Central movement, also known as "Umbrella Movement." He has said he will join the current protesters. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

One of the activists arrested after those demonstrations, Joshua Wong, was released from prison Monday after serving half of a two-month jail sentence for contempt. He told journalists he needed a bit of time but, "No matter what happens, I will join the protest soon."

Worries over extradition

Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong's freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.

The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down.

Protesters are also angry over police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other measures, as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the Hong Kong government's headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam's decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.

In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government "understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong."

"The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public," it said.

Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists.

"This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!" the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.

Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.

"It doesn't really matter because the next one would be just as evil," said Kayley Fung, 27.

Additional debate

Many in Hong Kong believe its legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing's insistence that it is still honouring its promise, dubbed "one country, two systems," that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover in 1997.

After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.

She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week's clashes with demonstrators.

In this image from video and taken with a drone, protesters fill Hennessy Road in Hong Kong on Sunday, where a massive protest drew a late-in-the-day apology from the city's top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony. (Cable TV Hong Kong/The Associated Press)

Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong's extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.

Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the population of seven million.

With files from Reuters