Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against police violence. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters
Over the past three days, demonstrators have rallied to condemn an
attack last weekend on commuters by suspected triad gangs, an incident that has led to accusations of government collusion, denied by Hong Kong officials.
On Saturday, a peaceful march in the town of Yuen Long
turned chaotic as police fired teargas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades, and charged protesters in a railway station. Thousands of demonstrators joined aviation workers at the airport for an 11-hour-sit-in on Friday.
The former British colony is facing its most serious political crisis since it was returned to Chinese control in 1997. Under the terms of that agreement, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a high degree of autonomy through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as: One country, two systems.
Sundays protests marked the eighth consecutive weekend that Hongkongers have taken to the streets in protests that began over an extradition bill that would have allowed wanted suspects to be sent to mainland China.
Why are people protesting?
Opposition to a proposed extradition law has broadened into a wider movement against Hong Kong’s leadership, its relationship with China and the future for the special administrative region.
Hong Kongs chief executive, Carrie Lam, has offered a solemn personal apology for the crisis and also hinted that she had in effect shelved the controversial legislation. However, protesters criticised her as insincere and said she had ignored their key demands. The demonstrations have continued.
What was the proposed extradition law?
The bill concerned legal changes that would make it easier to extradite people from Hong Kong to China. Supporters say the amendments are key to ensuring the city does not become a criminal refuge, but critics worry Beijing will use the law to extradite political opponents and others to
China. Under the amended law, those accused of offences punishable by seven years or more in prison could be extradited.
Who is supporting the change?
The government claims the push to change the law, which would also apply to Taiwan and Macau, stems from the killing last year of a Hong Kong woman while she was in Taiwan with her boyfriend. Authorities in Taiwan suspect the womans boyfriend, who remains in
Hong Kong, but cannot try him because no extradition agreement is in place.
Officials have promised to safeguard against abuses, pledging that no one at risk of political or religious persecution will be sent to the mainland. Suspects who could face the death penalty would not be extradited.
Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said the bill has not come from the central government in Beijing. However, Beijing has voiced its backing for the changes.
Why are so many Hongkongers so angry?
Many fear the proposed extradition law will be used by authorities to target political enemies. They worry the new legislation spells the end of the
one country, two systems policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.
Many attending the protests say they cannot trust China because it has often used non-political crimes to target government critics. They also fear Hong Kong officials will not be able to reject Beijings requests. Legal professionals have also expressed concern over the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%. Arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of ones choosing are also common.
How have authorities responded?
Police have clashed directly with demonstrators, and have been accused of standing by during attacks on protesters and commuters by groups of men in white in Yuen Long on 21 July.
After the current crisis, analysts believe the Hong Kong government will probably start a new round of retaliatory measures against its critics, while the Chinese government will tighten its grip on the city.
Lily Kuo in Beijing and Verna Yu in Hong Kong
As the police fired continuous rounds of teargas into crowds on Sunday, some protesters fell to ground choking. One group sought refuge in a nearby apartment building when residents opened the gate, ushering them in. Demonstrators collapsed on the stairwell, some of them crying.
Even though the protesters are peaceful, they keep throwing the teargas. I dont know why they keep throwing, said Hinton, 16, who had tears in his eyes after being gassed.
Police said they used teargas to disperse protesters who were hurling bricks at them but protesters insisted police fired first. We are trying to protect our own freedom. We are doing this for this place, our place. Ill be honest, I did throw things because Im that angry, said one protester, Angus, 24.
Yuen Long: teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets as police storm transit station video report
The protesters were then pushed back to smaller roads in Sheung Wan, a normally busy neighbourhood turned into a ghost town after shops closed and residents were warned to stay inside. Tourists and residents ran from the scene, covering their eyes and mouths.
Before midnight, the police had surrounded the protesters, shielding themselves with wooden boards and street signs. Teargas was lobbed at the protesters from all directions, shrouding the road and forcing the protesters to enter a mass transit station and leave.
Some protesters said the police appeared to escalating their tactics, with officers firing on protesters earlier and more frequently. I cant even count how many rounds of teargas they used, said Roy Chan, 39.
In a statement, the government said protesters had pushed a cart of burning cardboard at police, threatening the safety of police officers and members of public. The government said it would continue to give full support to police to strictly enforce the law to stop all violent behaviours.
Police said 49 people had been arrested in relation to Sundays protest, for suspected unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons.
Organisers for Sundays event had originally planned to march from central Hong Kong to Sheung Wan to condemn the police for firing teargas and rubber bullets on protesters last weekend. The police did not grant a permit for the march the second time authorities have rejected a protest request following a ban on the Saturday rally in Yuen Long.
Protesters fear authorities will adopt this line more in the future. On Sunday, one of the organisers of the Yuen Long rally, Max Chung, was arrested by police on suspicion of inciting an illegal assembly.
Some say the situation risks spiralling out of control as the public doubts the Hong Kong governments ability to govern and Beijing is likely to pressure Hong Kong authorities to take a harder line on protesters. As protesters continue to clash with police, people have only grown more frustrated, fuelling yet more demonstrations.
Police officers line up during a protest near Chinas liaison office in Hong Kong. Photograph: Edgar Su/Reuters
Theres a lot of public anger and I dont think thats going to go away soon, said James Yip, 27, part of the group of protesters leaving Sheung Wan. I think everyone is exhausted on both side, pro-government and pro-democracy.
Exhaustion among protests appears to have set in as well. Amy Yeung, 26, has been attending as many protests as she can. I am mentally tired. Watching the news, you cry, she said. But at least standing here, we are giving the message that we are not alone.
On Sunday, protesters said they were more angry than exhausted and would continue. Jonathan, 19, who was resting on a curb away from the frontline in between rounds of teargas, said: They see us as a threat because we are having an impact.
Residents have seen Beijings influence over Hong Kong grow in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent book sellers have disappeared from the city, to reappear in mainland China facing charges, a point critics of the extradition bill often make.
It seems to us that this is our last chance. If we dont do this now, we wont be able to later, said Eunice Chan, 55, who grew up in Hong Kong before it was returned to Chinese control in 1997.