Hong Kong‘s embattled leader has apologised to the public with “utmost sincerity and humility” after massive protests demanding she step down over her administration’s handling of a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China.
Organisers said almost 2 million turned out on Sunday to demand the bill’s full withdrawal, as well as to mark their anger at the way police handled a demonstration against it on Wednesday.
The estimate has not been independently verified but if confirmed it would be the largest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam “admitted that shortcomings in the government’s work has led to a lot of conflict and disputes in Hong Kong society and has disappointed and distressed many citizens,” a statement from her office said on Sunday.
“The chief executive apologises to the citizens and promises to accept criticism with the most sincere and humble attitude,” it added.
The rare apology came after hundreds of thousands of black-clad protesters took to the streets for the second time in a week to protest against the controversial bill.
A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China.
Bonnie Leung, one of the protest organisers, told Al Jazeera that Lam’s apology was meaningless, and didn’t address some of the main concerns of today’s protests, including the treatment of protesters by police.
“Hong Kong people are tired of being lied to by their representatives. The more sincere you say you are, the more anger we have. Her apology just added fuel to the fire.”
She said that she didn’t want to predict what would happen on Monday, when several unions have announced strikes and thousands of people are expected once again to gather at the CGO complex.
“What we need to do is not let up on the momentum, and build the power of the people. Two million Hong Kongers came out today, we need them to connect with their communities, and reach another three or four million people.”
She added that it was important for the international community to keep their attention focused on the city.
“If the international community values the rule of law, freedom and human rights, they need to speak up.”
The protesters formed a sea of black along roads, walkways and train stations across Hong Kong’s financial centre, with some carrying white carnation flowers and others holding banners saying, “Do not shoot, we are Hongkonger” – an appeal to police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters on Wednesday, wounding more than 70 people.
Protesters in Hong Kong want Carrie Lam to quit (2;29)
Lam’s announcement on Saturday that she was suspending the proposed law indefinitely had failed to placate critics who see it as one of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy.
Despite expressing “deep sorrow and regret” over the controversial bill, Lam insisted the legislation was still needed.
It was a dramatic retreat by Lam, but for many opponents, a suspension of the bill was not enough and Sunday’s marchers called for it to be scrapped and for Lam to go.
“Our demands are simple. Carrie Lam must leave office, the extradition law must be withdrawn and the police must apologise 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.”
‘Bill must be scrapped’
Meanwhile, Maggie Man, a 30-year-old fashion designer, dismissed Lam’s apology saying: “She has only said she will stop the bill for a while, not cancel it completely, so for now I won’t accept her apology.”
The protesters worry the proposed law could be used to send criminal suspects to China, where they say the justice system is marked by torture, forced confessions, arbitrary detentions and unfair trials.
But Lam maintains that the extradition legislation is needed for Hong Kong to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives.
Martin Lee, a founding member of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, accused Lam’s administration of “rushing” the bill.
“There is no need to rush … We are not only objecting to the way the government has been handling the passage of the bill, but the very bill itself,” he told Al Jazeera from Hong Kong.
“Whether Lam resigns or not, the bill must be scrapped. And then if they really want to discuss, then let’s discuss on that basis that there is no bill.”
However, Einar Tangen, a political analyst who advises the Chinese government on economic issues, said the idea of an extradition treaty with China after 20 years of talks was “not unreasonable”.
Calling the provisions of the bill “mild”, Tangen said: “If you were accused of a crime by the US government that [carried a sentence of] more than a year, you could be extradited to the US. But with China, you could only be extradited for rape, murder and very serious crimes, crimes that would take more than seven years in terms of sentence or possible sentence.”
Speaking from Beijing, he condemned the protests, saying “Hong Kong is deteriorating into a kind of mob rule … you cannot simply go out there every day and demand the government be changed”.
He added that China may not be “terribly impressed with Lam’s handling of things”.
After Lam’s announcement on Sunday, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision, while the country’s top newspaper condemned “anti-China lackeys” of foreign forces in Hong Kong.
“Certain people in Hong Kong have been relying on foreigners or relying on young people to build themselves up, serving as the pawns and lackeys of foreign anti-China forces,” the ruling People’s Daily said in a commentary.
“This is resolutely opposed by the whole of the Chinese people including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots.”
The protests against the extradition bill were among the largest in Hong Kong since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.
Under that deal, China allowed Hong Kong to keep key liberties denied to people on the mainland – like freedom of speech and independent courts – for 50 years.
Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting from 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Euan McKirdy contributed reporting from Hong Kong.