Demonstrators march during a protest against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong on June 9.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government faced new pressure to withdraw legislation easing extraditions to China after as many as 1 million people turned out to oppose the measure.
Hundreds of thousands of white-clad demonstrators, many chanting for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation, choked 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of central city boulevards for hours Sunday as they marched to the local government headquarters. As skirmishes broke out after dark, riot police used pepper spray and batons to disperse violent protesters who attacked them, Hong Kong police said on Twitter.
Organizers put the turnout at 1.03 million as of 9:30 p.m., while police estimated 240,000 participants at the rally’s peak.
Either way, the figures suggested one of the largest protests since the former British colony’s return to China more than two decades ago. A crowd of 1 million would require almost one in seven of Hong Kong’s estimated 7.5 million residents to attend.
Late Sunday, the Hong Kong government signaled a determination to press ahead with the bill, which would for the first time allow extraditions to mainland China. But the scale of the opposition raises the stakes for Lam and her backers in Beijing, who are already engaged in a global clash of values with the U.S.
Demonstrators march on June 9.
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A demonstration of about half a million people in 2003 led the city to scrap a controversial national security proposal and contributed to the eventual resignation of then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Hong Kong still hasn’t passed that measure.
“For anyone with the right mind in any leadership after seeing this huge, massive turnout this afternoon, they should not just rethink the whole situation,” Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker, told Bloomberg during the protest. “They should scrap this very controversial bill and let Hong Kong have some breathing space.”
The extradition bill has been criticized by Western governments and international business organizations as a threat to the “one country, two systems” framework credited with maintaining Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center. It’s one of several moves by President Xi Jinping’s government that have raised concern about Hong Kong’s autonomous structure, which guarantees free speech, capitalist markets and British common law.
Lam is working to pass the measure by the end of the current legislative session in July. with hearings slated to resume Wednesday. Last week, the government scaled back the bill, raising the proposed extradition limit to crimes that carried sentences of seven years in prison, compared with a three-year threshold initially.
In a statement Sunday, the Hong Kong government praised protesters for staging a “generally peaceful and orderly” demonstration, but defended the bill. The government said the legislation was written to ensure that suspects received a fair hearing in court and couldn’t be extradited for political offenses.
“Based on experience in recent weeks that face-to-face explanations by relevant officials have helped to dispel misunderstanding, the government will continue to engage, listen and allay concerns through calm and rational discussion,” the government said.
Demonstrators gather at Victoria Park on June 9.
On Sunday, demonstrators, who wore white as a symbol of justice, chanted “Oppose extradition to China!” and “Carrie Lam resign” as they marched through the city. Temperatures reached 32-degree Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) at the start of the protest.
“We hope the government can withdraw the bill,” said Ada Kwan, 48, an education company owner, as she pushed her 92-year-old mother in a wheelchair along the route. “This will harm Hong Kong’s democracy, rule of law and autonomy.”
Solidarity protests were also staged in dozens of cities around the world, with about 2,000 people demonstrating in Sydney, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported. In New York, protesters planned to march from Times Square to the Chinese consulate.
Even before Sunday, the bill had emerged as another tension point between China and the U.S., which grants Hong Kong special trading status based on its legal autonomy from the mainland. The U.S., as well as Canada, the European Union and the U.K., have expressed concern about the legislation.
Demonstrators hold placards featuring Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lam has said the law is needed to bring fugitives to justice and was spurred by the case of a Hong Kong man who could not be extradited to Taiwan for the murder of his 19-year-old girlfriend. But opponents are concerned that it could open the door to Hong Kong citizens and foreigners being prosecuted by Beijing.
Arnold Li, 36, a marketing officer carrying his toddler during Sunday’s protest, said he was concerned that the legislation would leave the next generation with no legal protection. Meanwhile, Wong Kin Yuen, 76, a Shue Yan University professor who heads its English language and literature department, said this was only the second protest he had attended.
“If this so-called bill passes, it will be more scary,” Wong said. “Every Hong Kong citizen would think it’s a severe problem. What if I say something in my class and could be sent to China the next day?”
— With assistance by Natalie Lung, and Magdalene Fung
(Updates with police using batons, tear gas in second paragraph.)