Hong Kong — Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through Hong Kong on Sunday to voice their opposition to government-sponsored legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. The peaceful protest turned violent early Monday morning when several hundred protesters stormed Hong Kong's parliament and clashed with police.
According to Reuters, demonstrators charged at police lines in an attempt to enter the Legislative Council building. The police charged back, displaying tear gas guns and using pepper spray. The crowd briefly pushed its way into the lobby but police used batons and pepper spray and the protesters were moved outside. There is no confirmation yet if anyone has been killed or injured.
The massive demonstration took place three days before the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's government plans to bring the highly contentious bill to the full legislature, bypassing the committee process in a bid to win approval by the end of the month. The bill has been proposed by the administration of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Hong Kong's leader signaled Monday that her government will go ahead with proposed amendments to its extradition laws despite the massive protest against them. Lam told reporters the legislation is important and will help Hong Kong uphold justice and fulfill its international obligations. Safeguards added in May will ensure that the legislation protects human rights, she said.
The protest was one of the largest in recent Hong Kong history. It appeared to be larger than the 2014 Pro Democracy Movement protests. It also appeared to be even bigger than a massive pro-democracy demonstration in 2003 against a proposed national security law, according to Associated Press journalists who covered both events. People of all ages took part in the march, some pushing strollers and others carrying canes, chanting slogans in the native Cantonese dialect in favor of greater transparency in government.
Kiwi Wong, 27, was among the throng, a member of the younger generation who've grown up enjoying relative prosperity but also growing insecurity about what many see as an erosion of the rights Hong Kong residents have enjoyed.
"If I didn't come out now, I don't know when I would have the chance to express my opinion again," Wong said. "Because now we've got to this stage, if you don't come out to try to do what you can, then it will end up too late, you won't be able to say or do anything about it."
Alex Ng, a 67-year-old retiree, said he joined the protest because "I think that there was never any public consultation about this law, and there are a lot of uncertainties."
Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, has pushed forward with the legislation despite widespread criticism from human rights and business groups. The amendments have been criticized as eroding Hong Kong's judicial independence by making it easier to send criminal suspects to mainland China, where they could face vague national security charges and unfair trials.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement late Sunday that it respected the right of its opponents to protest.
Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, the so-called "one country, two systems" framework. However, China's ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing extradition agreements or to others on an individual basis under a law passed before 1997.
China was excluded because of concerns over its poor record on legal independence and human rights. In recent years, mainland authorities have gone after opponents by accusing them of dubious crimes such as tax evasion and crystallizing worries among critics.
Lam's government argued that the revisions were needed to close legal loopholes, while opponents say that is merely an excuse to pursue China's agenda of reducing Hong Kong's legal independence. Hong Kong's Legislative Council plans to vote on the bill Wednesday.