Tens of thousands of people have begun to march in Hong Kong in protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill that critics fear could allow China to seize anyone living or passing through the territory and transfer them to face trial on the mainland.
Organisers are hoping up to half a million people will join the demonstration in the semi-autonomous territory, which is being held just days after up to 180,000 attended a candlelit vigil to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Organisers used that vigil to drum up support for Sunday’s march.
Police said more than 153,000 people marched from Victoria Park, where the rally started.
Many of the protesters carried yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the mass democracy protests in 2014, emblazoned with slogans enjoining to people to “support freedom”.
“We have the responsibility to speak up. The extradition law is affecting Hong Kong’s future,” said Jenny Cheung, a 50-year-old protester who said she worried that if passed the bill would result in foreign businesses and capital leaving Hong Kong.
“The government is not listening to the people at all,” said Jackie Tang, a 36-year-old who added that it was the first time in her life that she had joined any protest.
Kulam Tseng, 40, said he feared the demonstration would achieve nothing. “I don’t think this will be effective, but it’s still something we need to do.”
The bill has been condemned by business groups and foreign governments. The US, UK and Canada have publicly expressed concern, while the European Union has issued a formal diplomatic “démarche” protest note. In a joint statement at the end of last month UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt and Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, said: “We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of UK and Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office in Hong Kong was swift to respond and released a statement saying: “We deplore and firmly oppose the attempts by the relevant countries to continuously interfere in the normal legislative process of the Hong Kong”.
The Hong Kong government has made some concessions since the outcry erupted. At the end of last month it tweaked the extradition proposals, lifting the minimum sentencing threshold an accused must face before being eligible for extradition from three years to seven years imprisonment and proposing that only extradition requests from the highest overseas prosecuting authorities would be accepted.
However, in a joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Monitor and Human Rights Watch — their second open letter expressing “grave concern” over the proposal — the organisations argued that the latest proposed safeguards were “unlikely to provide genuine and effective protection”.
The government announced last month that it intended to fast-track the bill through Legco. No date has been set for the final vote but the government has said it wants the council, which is mainly controlled by pro-Beijing lawmakers, to pass the bill by July.
The government issued a statement on Sunday just before the march began hitting back at critics of the bill and rejecting any idea that its passage could affect business confidence or personal freedoms in the territory. “It is not correct to state or imply that the proposal will in any way impact on, interfere with, or have a chilling effect on the freedom of assembly, of the press, of speech, of academic freedom or publication; or relate to offences of a political nature,” it said.
Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse.