Hong Kong protests fade as activists mull next steps

Policemen stand guard in the rain as protesters gather near the Legislative Council continuing protest against the unpopular extradition bill in Hong Kong. (Source: AP)

Hong Kong’s government headquarters reopened Tuesday as the number of protesters outside dwindled to a few dozen and life returned to normal in the former British colony. The demonstrations persisted into the early hours but by mid morning most of the protesters had gone home.

A routine meeting of the Executive Council was called off. Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended work on the extradition bill that ignited the protests but still faces calls to resign for having sought to push through the legislation, which would allow some suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.

Late Monday, Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Stephen Lo Wai-chung, held a news conference where he sought to defuse anger over aggressive police tactics during protests last week. He said only five of 15 people arrested during the clashes were charged with rioting, a serious offense that can result in a prison term of up to 10 years. Another 17 people were arrested on lesser charges.

Lo still defended as appropriate the police response to the protests, which included the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and steel batons against protesters who removed crowd control and traffic barriers.

Those tactics helped draw nearly 2 million people, young and old, into a march on Sunday, according to organizers’ estimates. Protesters were demanding Lam scrap the extradition bill and authorities apologize for the police actions.

A member of the Executive Council, Lam’s cabinet, told reporters that Hong Kong’s leaders made a "big mistake" in not consulting the public before proposing the legislation. Lam Ching-choi said of Carrie Lam, "I believe she will communicate her apologies to the public in the near future."

The activists have rejected Lam’s apologies for her handling of the legislation, which touched a nerve not easily soothed in a city anxious over the increasingly authoritarian Communist rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The uproar also highlights worries that Hong Kong is losing the special autonomous status China promised it when it took control in 1997.

On June 9, as many as 1 million people demonstrated to express their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China.

The scenes are similar to demonstrations in 2014, when protesters camped for weeks in the streets demanding a direct election to decide the city’s chief executive, who is chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

One concern over the extradition bill is that it might be used to send critics of Communist Party rule to the mainland to face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.

Lam insists the legislation is needed for Hong Kong to uphold justice and not become a magnet for fugitives. It would expand the scope of 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 the judicial independence of its courts and its human rights record.

The vast majority of Hong Kong residents fled persecution, political chaos or poverty and famine in the Chinese mainland. They value stability and but also cherish freedoms of dissent and legal protections not allowed for people on the mainland.