Protesters in Hong Kong on Friday again hit the streets to press the city’s leader to resign — just three days after she vowed to finish her term in office — and demand police release demonstrators arrested more than a week ago.
A crowd of black-clad, mostly young people numbering what appeared to be several thousand gathered outside the Hong Kong police headquarters, swelling from a smaller group earlier in the hundreds that had staged a sit-down protest at the local legislature.
Smaller groups targeted government offices in an attempt to disrupt business, forcing at least one to close early.
Besides stepping down, protesters are demanding that Chief Executive Carrie Lam fully withdraw a contentious bill to allow extraditions to mainland China that has sparked a series of demonstrations in the Asian trade and finance center.
Massive rallies this month that drew hundreds of thousands forced Lam to indefinitely put on hold the legislation and issue public apologies. She said that there is no timeline to revive the bill and essentially acknowledged that doing so is highly unlikely given opposition to it. But that has not satisfied protesters, who want it formally dropped.
Hong Kong citizens, who enjoy a legal system independent from the rest of China, fear the plan could threaten those judicial protections and their broader autonomy — legacies of the city’s time as a British colony.
“I’m worried about our future, our safety,” Alvin Ip, an insurance agent who stood outside the police building, told CNBC. “Our Hong Kong is changing very fast,” Ip said, expressing concern over eroding autonomy.
Protesters are also increasingly venting their anger at police after riot squads sprayed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesters on June 12, actions the police commissioner has described as justified.
Demonstrators shouted for the release of 15 people arrested on June 12 for alleged violent acts. Some wore gas masks, saying they were afraid tear gas would be used again. But police appeared to be keeping a low profile, with a handful of officers in regular uniform standing in front of the building in the city’s Wan Chai district.
Police did not immediately have an estimate for the size of the crowd nor comment about Friday’s protests when contacted by CNBC.
Elsewhere, other protesters disrupted activity at Hong Kong’s tax and immigration buildings, staging a sit-down protest in the lobby of the latter. One was seen trying to physically prevent an employee from entering an elevator area. Some used steel barriers, traffic cones, tires and other objects to block Gloucester Road, a busy thoroughfare. The tax office closed early.
The government issued a statement late Friday lamenting public “inconvenience” caused by the demonstrations, including at police headquarters and called on protesters to “act peacefully and rationally.” It also reiterated that the legislation is unlikely to be revived and that the government “accepts this reality.”
The latest demonstrations took place after protesters said the government did not respond by a Thursday deadline to an ultimatum they issued after Lam’s latest apology on Tuesday.
Besides withdrawing the bill, the ultimatum also included revoking the designation of the protests on June 12 as a “riot,” the release of the arrested demonstrators and dropping of all charges, and a probe into alleged police brutality. While the list itself did not include Lam’s resignation, that remains an ongoing demand in the protests themselves.
Lam, who begins the third year of a five-year term on July 1, has found herself squeezed between Beijing’s desire to extend its influence over Hong Kong and the local protest movement that has drawn broad support.
Under a “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong has a separate legal system, and manages its own economy and currency — while China handles foreign affairs and defense.
‘Fighting for their freedom’
The morning demonstration at the legislature was peaceful. That was in contrast to June 12, when a larger crowd of more than 10,000 people surrounded the building in a tense day-long standoff with police that ended in clashes and a total of about 100 injuries on both sides.
Michael Cheung, a part-time cook who was in the crowd outside the Legislative Council, said he is committed to carrying on if other young people do.
But he had his doubts over how long the momentum for the recent large-scale protests, which saw a wide swathe of society participate, can be sustained. “It’s very hard to keep up for Hong Kong people,” Cheung told CNBC.
Phoenix Chow, a church worker, had harsh words for Lam and some of her top officials, adding that they do not respect the people and criticized them for not responding to protesters’ demands.
“So, we need to stay here,” she said, of the sit-in.
One demonstrator, who would only give his name as Max, said he came from the mainland and wanted to protest in solidarity with Hong Kong.
“The Hong Kong people are fighting for their freedom,” he said, wearing a baseball cap, dark glasses and a face mask to conceal his identity. “But we have a common enemy, which is the Chinese government, actually.”
He said such a protest would be impossible in China. “If I did it, I would be basically dead, but I can do this here in Hong Kong.”