A protest march of more than a million people brought Hong Kong’s streets to a standstill on Sunday (June 9) in what organizers claim to be the city’s largest-ever rally.

They gathered to voice mass opposition to a proposed extradition law that would for the first time allow fugitives wanted by authorities in China to be sent from Hong Kong to the mainland for trial.

Braving sweltering temperatures, throngs of demonstrators clad in white held placards and yellow umbrellas in defiance as they shouted slogans in English and Cantonese calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who critics say has tried to hastily push through the unpopular bill.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the group that organized the sprawling march, claimed a record turnout of 1.03 million people, a massive showing that raises pressure on local authorities to scrap the rendition bill. Police estimates down played the numbers, per usual, with security forces claiming attendance peaked at 240,000.

Though the China-backed extradition bill is a local government initiative, many here are wary that it would give authorities in Beijing a freer hand to target political opponents and foreign businesspeople on the self-ruled island with contrived charges to be heard in China’s politicized court system.

“If the law is passed, then China can use it to catch people in Hong Kong who are against their will,” said demonstrator Anthony Lee, 46.

“This law is not going to be good for anyone. I think it’s time for us to speak up. I really hope today will be a day that will change something,” rally attendee Eric Chan, 22, told Asia Times.

Young protesters surrounded by anti-riot police after a clash with police following a peaceful march against the government sponsored China extradition law June 9, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via EyePress/Willy Wong

Though the mammoth march unfolded peacefully throughout the day and into the early evening, violence unfolded just after the stroke of midnight on June 10 when a young, rowdy segment of protestors attempted to storm the city’s parliament building and threw objects at police, who reportedly responded by using batons and pepper spray.

Officers in riot gear moved to secure the premises shortly before 1:00 am as police issued warnings to protesters to leave immediately. Several arrests were made and the force’s public relations branch said officers incurred “serious injuries” as the protests turned violent.

Protests were dispersed elsewhere by police armed with helmets and shields.

Shortly before the unrest, a government spokesperson issued a statement that called the procession “an example of Hong Kong people exercising their freedom of expression” and invited legislators to “scrutinize the bill in a calm, reasonable and respectful manner,” but offered no indication that the government would back down.

Debate on the legal changes will begin on Wednesday (June 12) in the Legislative Council (Legco), the city’s parliament, where it is expected to be passed by the end of the month. The city’s government first launched the so-called Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill in February on grounds of fighting transnational crime.

Hong Kong’s independent, common law-based legal system functions separately from the mainland as per the 1997 handover agreement that formally ended the island’s status as a British colony.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

It is widely viewed in diplomatic and business circles as the city’s strongest remaining asset to the “one country, two systems” autonomy arrangement and a boon to its status an international trading and financial hub.

Academic, business, diplomatic and legal communities, as well as countries such as the United States, Canada and Britain, have voiced objections to the proposed legal changes. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck an adamant tone on the matter last month, saying the rendition amendments would “threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law.”

Lam’s backers appear to have enough votes for the rendition bill to become law, though the legislature itself is starkly divided.

A Legco meeting in May was forced to adjourn after an unprecedented brawl broke out between pro-establishment and the pan-democratic camps, as both sides attempted to hold separate hearings on the extradition proposal.

The administration has offered two rounds of concessions, tweaking the bill so that an extradition request could only be triggered for offenses punishable by a minimum of three years’ jail, instead of one year as originally proposed.

That figure was raised further to cover offenses punishable by a minimum seven years’ imprisonment.

Those changes, however, did little to placate opposition to the rendition bill, which would allow Hong Kong’s leader to approve an extradition request from a foreign jurisdiction after court hearings, thereby eliminating the oversight roles of the chief executive’s cabinet and Legco, which can currently evaluate extradition arrangements.

Protesters march down a street in Hong Kong on Sunday during a rally against a controversial extradition law. Photo: AFP

“Concessions have been made, but what matters most at the end of the day is the concern that you will have people being removed to face justice in a system that is opaque, harsh and certainly not the standards that we expect of ourselves,” said Philip Dykes, a lawyer and chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association.

The city’s legal sector has prominently spoken out against the proposed rendition bill. An estimated 3,000 of Hong Kong’s lawyers and legal professionals staged a silent march last Thursday (June 6) with many calling for more extensive consultation on the changes and voicing criticism of attempts to rush the bill through the legislature.

“It seems to me that the Hong Kong government’s stance is hardening and it is determined to push this through at all costs after having pursued it with what I would call indecent haste,” Dykes told Asia Times, adding that the bill “would open up access to the application of mainland laws to people in Hong Kong through means of removal or extradition.”

He added: “There’s nothing wrong in principle with that. Hong Kong has got 20 agreements with other places for extradition… [But] because its well-known that the criminal justice system in the mainland has profound shortcomings, it is almost callous on the part of the Hong Kong government to say ‘Well, off you go’,” he said.

Lam has thus far refused to pull the extradition bill, saying that it is vital to plug what Hong Kong government officials have repeatedly described as a long-standing legal “loophole” that they assert has allowed the city to become a haven for criminals wanted on the mainland and elsewhere.

Demonstrators convene in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park with multi-lingual signs opposing a proposed extradition law with China, June 9, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie

The chief executive has seized on a grisly homicide to make the case for speedy legal changes to ensure a Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, suspected of murdering his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan last year, can be sent there for trial.

Police say he confessed on his return to Hong Kong and is currently in jail on separate money-laundering charges.

Taipei, however, has said it won’t take back the murder suspect after objecting to the bill on grounds that it would not wish to be a party to agreements which could see Taiwanese citizens sent to Hong Kong and thus potentially moved to the mainland, a stance that could attenuate the controversial bill’s deliberation.

“When you use the word ‘loophole,’ you indicate, talking in terms of legislation, that there has been a careless draftsman or a not particularly diligent parliament or legislative body which has let legislation go through with a gap in it. This is not the case,” said Dykes.

“The terms of the ordinance are explicit: the rest of China, including the mainland, Taiwan and Macau are deliberately excluded. There’s no question of it being an omission.”

Protesters block the protest area of Legislative Council with barricades during clashes with police after a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong, June 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

Malcolm Rifkind, the former British foreign secretary who took part in the handover negotiations with China, addressed that issue in a recent article in the South China Morning Post where he denied that handover negotiators accidentally left a “loophole” but instead left in place “a necessary firewall” to protect the city’s judicial independence.

“The integrity of Hong Kong’s legal system continues to require a firewall. The proposed amendment provides a potential bypass which may leave it in critical condition,” he wrote, echoing a growing view that the autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” model is coming under new strain.

“China’s hand is getting longer and longer, deeper and deeper into Hong Kong and this ordinance gives them a lot of options,” said Cheung Yiu-Leung , a member of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group who believes that China’s rule of law has not improved enough to reassure Hongkongers on the risks of extradition to the mainland.

“We’ve only seen the deterioration rather than improvement of the rule of law. There are chronic problems like a lack of judicial independence. Investigations are still confession-based,” he told Asia Times. “Judges are civil servants, but behind the civil servants you have a party committee who gives direction and controls the running of the administration.”

Proponents of the bill, however, feel opposition voices and activists have misrepresented the severity of its legal implications. Regina Ip, an elected legislator who served as Hong Kong’s secretary for security from 1998 to 2003, told Asia Times that all rendition requests will be subjected to thorough rigorous common law human rights safeguards.

A protester is arrested after a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Issac Lawrence

“The concerns in Hong Kong that stem from long-standing mistrust of China’s legal and judicial system, that is totally understandable. But, we will not be importing mainland legal systems into Hong Kong [and] I don’t think there will be any possibility of the chief executive just doing Beijing’s bidding,” she said.

“All of [Lam’s] decisions, being executive decisions, would be judicially reviewable…The government has responded to expressions of concerns and it has made several concessions. It will even ask the requesting jurisdiction to build into the request common law safeguards like presumption of innocence, legal representation, an open trial,” noted the legislator.

“I do accept that the government should have conducted a more prolonged consultation, but in spite of the short time allowed for consultation, the discussions have been thorough and intensive and the chief executive has taken on many suggestions,” Ip said.

However conciliatory, Hong Kong’s leader now appears to have put herself in a political bind judging by the record-breaking mass demonstration against the extradition bill.

“The government could scrap or postpone the bill to allow for more extensive consultations, this is a possibility. They should listen to the views of the legal profession and restart the whole consultation,” Cheung said.

“Perhaps the decision now before Carrie Lam is that either she defies the mainstream people’s opinion or she steps down.”