Nearly two million of the Hong Kong’s seven million-strong population joined a demonstration against a controversial extradition bill, organisers say.
Hong Kong citizens marched for hours in the massive protest that drew an apology from the city’s leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in the former British colony.
If the estimates are confirmed, it would be the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history, however police said 338,000 people were counted on the designated protest route during the march’s “peak period”.
A demonstration a week earlier brought as many as one million people out to express their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China, in one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.
Well after dark, crowds gathered outside the police headquarters and chief executive Carrie Lam’s office.
On Saturday, Lam suspended her effort to force passage of the bill, which would allow some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China.
The move did not appease Hong Kong residents angered over the plan who see it as one of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy.
Opponents worry the law could be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.
Protesters are also angered over forceful tactics used by police in quelling unrest at a June 12 demonstration.
The statement issued late on Sunday mentioned the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong”.
“The chief executive apologised to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.
The marchers want Lam to scrap the extradition bill, which is supported by the communist leadership in Beijing, and to resign.
The crowds filled a wide thoroughfare and side streets paralleling the waterfront of Victoria Harbour as tourists and shoppers who drive much of the Asian financial hub’s economy looked on.
“Our demands are simple,” said bank worker John Chow as he marched with a group of friends.
“Carrie Lam must leave office, the extradition law must be withdrawn and the police must apologise for using extreme violence against their own people. And we will continue.”
Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule.
Many believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence it is still honouring its promise – dubbed “one country, two systems” – that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover.
The rally drew marchers both young and old. Few wore face masks or seemed to be trying to hide their identities, in contrast with demonstrations on Wednesday, when participants expressed worries over possible retribution from the authorities.
The police presence was considerably more relaxed on Sunday, with officers deployed mainly to direct traffic as the protesters wound their way through Hong Kong’s commercial centre from a sprawling downtown park to government headquarters.
Farther down the parade route, mourners lined up to lay flowers and pay respects at a makeshift memorial for a man who fell to his death on Saturday after hanging a protest banner that read in part, “Make Love, No Shoot” and “No Extradition to China”.
Pro-democracy activists were calling for a general strike on Monday despite Lam’s decision to suspend work on the legislation.