Hong Kong's downtown was calm Friday after days of protests by students and human rights activists opposed to a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts, although the prospect of further protests over the weekend loomed largely. Demonstrators have said they remain committed to preventing the administration of Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam from pushing through the legal amendments they see as eroding Hong Kong's cherished legal autonomy which it retained after its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Traffic flowed on major thoroughfares that had been closed after a protest by hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday, posing the biggest political challenge yet to Lam's two-year-old government. Protesters had kept up a presence through Thursday night, singing hymns and holding up signs criticizing the police for their handling of the demonstrations. Police said they have arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-Chung said 22 officers had been injured in the fracas and hospital administrators said they treated 81 people for protest-related injuries.
Several hundred young protesters gathered Thursday on a pedestrian bridge across from the government complex, standing for hours and singing "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord," while holding signs with messages such as "Don't Shoot" and "End the Violence." Signs were posted on the walls of the bridge Friday, including photocopies of the famed Associated Press "Tank Man" picture that became a symbol of resistance to China's bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Other signs criticized the police for their use of force in fighting back against protesters, including firing tear gas and rubber bullets and striking out with steel batons.
The debris-strewn area around government headquarters was blocked off by police while sanitation workers gathered rubbish and police officers checked the identity cards of pedestrians before letting them into the area. The standoff between police and protesters is Hong Kong's most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city's civil liberties and courts. It poses a profound challenge both to the local leadership and to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country's strongest leader in decades who has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing's dictates.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that Wednesday's violence was "rioting" that was "intolerable in any civilized society that respects the rule of law." That designation could raise potential legal penalties for those arrested for taking part. "Intense confrontation is surely not the solution to ease disputes and resolve controversies," Lam said, according to an official news release.
It's unclear how Lam, as chief executive, might defuse the crisis, given Beijing's strong support for the extradition bill and its distaste for dissent. Beijing has condemned the protests but so far has not indicated whether it is planning harsher measures. In past cases of unrest, the authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders. Nearly two years ago, Xi issued a stern address in the city stating that Beijing would not tolerate Hong Kong becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a foreign-inspired campaign to undermine its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.
Not all in Hong Kong support the protesters. About a dozen older people staged a demonstration in a downtown garden in support of the extradition bill. But others expressed sympathy. Though never a bastion of democracy, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms of speech and protest denied to Chinese living in the mainland.
Opposition to the proposed extradition legislation brought what organizers said was 1 million people into the streets on Sunday. The clashes Wednesday drew tens of thousands of mostly young residents and forced the legislature to postpone debate on the bill. That came days after Hong Kong held one of the biggest June 4 candlelight vigils in recent years to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1989 protests in mainland China, a reminder of the uneasy relationship citizens of the region maintains with the authoritarian regime in Beijing.
Those in Hong Kong who anger China's central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012. The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of the territory's rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is under investigation for allegedly leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the "Umbrella Revolution" were convicted on public nuisance and other charges. Hong Kong's protests have drawn international concern and support from human rights groups and foreign capitals.
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