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Thousands march in opposition to extradition bill

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After days of protests, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has announced that the government will suspend its controversial extradition bill.
USA TODAY

Hong Kong protesters who packed streets Sunday remained defiant, rejecting a government apology for the handling of an extradition bill that has prompted outrage and fears of Beijing’s expanding control over the former British colony.

And pro-democracy activists say they will press on with a general strike Monday.

A statement, which was credited to an unidentified government spokesman, said unspecified “deficiencies in the government’s work had led to substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief among the people.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam “apologized to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

The apology came 24 hours after Lam announced her decision to suspend legislation that would allow some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China, a move critics see as a ploy to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

Lam’s announcement failed to appease the hundreds of thousands of protesters, who are calling for a total withdrawal of the bill as well as Lam’s resignation.

“Our demands are simple. Carrie Lam must leave office, the extradition law must be withdrawn, and the police must apologize for using extreme violence against their own people,” bank worker John Chow said as he marched with a group of his friends. “And we will continue.”

Sunday’s march echoed one a week earlier that brought as many as 1 million people out to express their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China. The marchers seemed to be less concerned with hiding their identities compared to demonstrations Wednesday, when participants expressed worries over possible retribution from authorities.

Many believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring its promise – dubbed “one country, two systems” – that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after China absorbed Hong Kong in a 1997 handover. 

Lam says the extradition legislation is needed to uphold justice and protect Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives. The proposed bill would allow 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. 

“There’s always been a sense in Hong Kong that the mainland system would disrupt the Hong Kong system as we know it,” Michael C. Davis, a former professor at the University of Hong Kong, told USA TODAY. “It’s not just autonomy, but it’s the very identity of Hong Kong people. They don’t want to become just another Chinese city. They’re an international city.”

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 businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.

Protesters are also concerned with the way police have responded to them: Officers have used tear gas, rubber bullets and other aggressive measures when demonstrators stormed barricades outside the city government’s headquarters.

The protests over the weekend saw one casualty, a man dubbed the Raincoat Martyr, according to the South China Morning Post. He fell to his death Saturday evening after hanging a banner that read in part, “Make Love, No Shoot” and “No Extradition to China.”

The man missed a big cushion set up to capture him after clinging for a time to scaffolding outside a shopping mall and was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

“I’m devastated. Everybody here is using their own voice, however small that may be, to say to the government: Withdraw, don’t just pause, the bill,” Miss Cheung, a 62-year-old translator, told the South China Morning Post after placing flowers outside the mall. 

Activists have scheduled a general strike Monday despite Lam’s decision to suspend work on the legislation. Some labor unions, teachers associations and other groups were planning boycotts of work and classes.

“We encourage all the public to carry on the campaign,” said Bonny Leung, a leader of the pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front.

After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence, 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.

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Contributing: The Associated Press

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