Protesters in Hong Kong have ended their overnight siege of police headquarters peacefully, disappointed that their demands for the territory’s leader to formally withdraw a contentious extradition bill and police to apologise for heavy handed tactics are unmet.
By daybreak Saturday, police cleared the streets of barriers set up by protesters to snarl traffic in the Asian financial centre, and only a few groups in the mostly youthful crowd remained. Many slept outside the legislature.
Hong Kong has been rocked by major protests for the past two weeks over legislative proposals that many view as eroding the territory’s judicial independence and, more broadly, as a sign of Chinese government efforts to chip away at the city’s freedoms.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam indefinitely suspended debate on the bills a week ago, making it likely they would die.
But protesters are demanding that she formally withdraw the proposed changes to the extradition laws, which would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include mainland China, Taiwan and Macau.
Some also want Lam to resign.
Legal and business groups in Hong Kong oppose the legislation, saying critics of China’s ruling Communist Party would be at risk of torture and unfair trials on the mainland and that it further erode the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong has been governed since the handover from British rule in 1997.
The peaceful ending to Friday’s protests drew a sigh of relief in the city of 7.4 million people, after police unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets last week in violent clashes that left dozens injured on both sides.
Police were previously criticised for their use of force but this time waited out the protesters.
Police did issue a statement at 4.50am on Saturday condemning them for blocking key streets and seriously disrupting work at police headquarters.
“Police have shown the greatest tolerance to the protesters who assembled outside PHQ, but their means of expressing views have become illegal, irrational and unreasonable,” the statement said in part.
Activist Joshua Wong called on police to answer demands over heavy handed tactics used during a mass protest on June 12, including the firing of 150 rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, and the beating of unarmed protesters by police with truncheons.
“We … urge police to apologise to the people” over the use of such tactics and their labelling of the gathering as a riot, Mr Wong said.
Around police headquarters, masked and helmeted protesters covered surveillance cameras with masking tape and lashed barriers together with nylon cable ties.
The auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong’s Catholic Diocese, the Reverend Joseph Ha, appealed to the protesters to avoid violence.
He warned that public opinion could turn against them.
“You have already been on the roads for a long time,” he said on Cable TV Hong Kong.
“You’ve already done a lot. You have already expressed very clearly your hopes and wishes. But I am really worried about your personal safety. … Please, absolutely, do not use violence.”
Since the confrontations June 12, police have eased their approach, hoping to avoid a replay of 2014 protests, when officers unleashed 87 rounds of tear gas at protesters in the same location as the current protests.
When the smoke from that response cleared, bigger crowds returned, angrier than before, and didn’t leave for nearly three months.
The Communist Party under Chinese President Xi Jinping has been pushing ever more aggressively to quiet independent voices in Hong Kong.
Beijing has suppressed all reporting on the protests in mainland media and accused foreign forces of stirring up disturbances in Hong Kong.
Opposition to the legislation has come from a broad range of civic, human rights, legal profession and commercial organisations.
The Hong Kong Bar Association said on Friday in a joint statement by seven international legal bodies that the suspended extradition bill "fundamentally imperil of the operation of the rule of law in Hong Kong," urging for its full withdrawal.
— Hong Kong Free Press (@HongKongFP) June 21, 2019
On Friday, the Hong Kong Bar Association reiterated its criticism, saying Ms Lam’s decision to suspend but not withdraw the bill was “wholly unsatisfactory” because it could still dictate the parameters of future consultation on the issues of surrender of fugitives and cross-border legal assistance.
Amnesty International went a step further, saying police must “end the unlawful use of force against peaceful protesters,” and issuing a report documenting 14 incidents of apparent police violence on June 12.
Officers appeared “out of control, placing peaceful protesters who posed no threat in danger of serious injury,” Man-kei Tam, the group’s Hong Kong director, said in a statement.