Police threaten ‘force’ as Hong Kong protesters besiege legislature

Protestors occupy Harcourt Road near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.

Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images

Tensions were high in Hong Kong on Wednesday with large crowds of protesters gathering around the local legislature as lawmakers prepared to debate a law that’s been condemned by hundreds of thousands in the city. Police, meanwhile, threatened to use force against the demonstrators.

The protests, which kicked off over the weekend, are vowing to stop a government plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. The heart of the issue, demonstrators say, is the city’s ceding its autonomy to Beijing. Large crowds overflowed roads and pathways leading to the Legislative Council, the local assembly, while police in riot gear were deployed. Police raised a red warning flag that reads: “Stop Charging or We Use Force.”

Security was heavy in central Hong Kong with non-authorized access blocked to local legislature, which activists have called on opponents of the proposal to surround days after the biggest public demonstration in years shook the global finnace and trade hub of 7.4 million people.

Police said that 240,000 people participated at the peak of Sunday’s protest that saw throngs march down a main street shouting slogans and carrying signs denouncing the legislation and demanding Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, resign.

Organizers, however, claimed a turnout of slightly more than 1 million. The last time Hong Kong saw a protest of such scale was in 2003 when an estimated 500,000 people rallied against a proposed security law that also raised fears of closer links to China.

Sunday’s protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, but there were some clashes at night between protesters and police at the legislature with some injuries and arrests made.

Lam, who next month starts the third year of a five-year term, on Monday rejected such calls, telling reporters that she will push ahead with the plan in the the local assembly. Further debate on the issue was set for later Wednesday.

‘Hong Kong is Hong Kong’

Lam also said the idea for the legal change came from her government, denying widespread suspicions that she is acting at the behest of Beijing authorities.

The government says the changes are necessary to close a legal “gap” that prevents it from extraditing a local man to Taiwan for allegedly killing his girlfriend while on a visit there last year.

It wants to change a local ordinance to that effect, but the change would also apply to China and other locales with which Hong Kong lacks extradition treaties. The government says the bill includes strong safeguards and has claimed it won’t be used for political purposes.

A demonstrator displays the U.K. flag behind a police line on June 10 in Hong Kong.

Chan Long Hei | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

But Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, in a Tuesday Facebook post lauded the Hong Kong protesters and criticized the proposal, saying the self-governing island would not accept the accused man’s extradition under the proposed legal change.

Many in Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from mainland China, fear being caught up in mainland courts, which are widely criticized by human groups as a political tool of the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think Hong Kong is Hong Kong. It’s not China,” said Jeace Chan, who participated in Sunday’s demonstration and was having breakfast Wednesday before heading to the legislature to join the latest protest aimed at stopping passage of the bill.

“This is our goal,” she added.

Foreign business groups and governments, including the United States, have expressed concern that the proposed ordinance change could compromise Hong Kong’s rule of law, and therefore make the global financial center a less attractive place to do business.

But the extradition rule changes, which the government says would only apply fugitives accused of serious crimes, also have some support among local organizations. For one, Hong Kong’s Chinese General Chamber of Commerce released a statement on Monday, saying the proposal would lead to “a more established legal environment” in Hong Kong and called for quick passage.

—CNBC’s Vivian Kam, Paula Sailes and Huileng Tan contributed to this report.

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