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Archive for the ‘Protests in Hong Kong’ Category

Protesters mass in Hong Kong before anthem law is debated

May 27, 2020

HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of protesters shouted pro-democracy slogans and insults at police in Hong Kong before lawmakers later Wednesday debate a bill criminalizing abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city.

Police massed outside the legislative building ahead of the meeting and warned protesters that if they did not disperse, they could be prosecuted. In the Central business district, police raised flags warning protesters to disperse, before they shot pepper balls at protesters and searched several people. More than 50 people in the Causeway Bay shopping district were rounded up and made to sit outside a shopping mall, while riot police patrolled and warned journalists to stop filming while brandishing pepper spray.

At least 16 people, most of them teenagers, were arrested on charges of possessing items fit for unlawful purposes, such as petrol bombs and screwdrivers. Three of the people arrested were charged for dangerous driving.

Lawmakers were to debate a bill that would make it illegal to insult or abuse the “March of the Volunteers” in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Those found guilty could face up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of HK$50,000 (US$6,450).

The bill was proposed in January 2019 after Hong Kong spectators jeered at the anthem during high-profile, international soccer matches in 2015. Last year, FIFA fined the Hong Kong Football Association after fans booed the Chinese national anthem at a World Cup qualifying game.

Hong Kong was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised freedoms not found on the mainland. Anti-China sentiment has risen as residents see Beijing moving to erode those rights.

Mass protests in 2014, known as the Umbrella Revolution, followed the Chinese government’s decision to allow direct election of the city leader only after it screened candidates. In the end, the plan for direct elections was dropped.

Legislation proposed in Hong Kong last year that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China for trials set off months of demonstrations that at times involved clashes between protesters and police. The legislation was withdrawn.

China’s ceremonial parliament now meeting in Beijing has moved to enact a national security law for Hong Kong, aimed at forbidding secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism. Hong Kong’s own government has been unable to pass such legislation due to the opposition in the city, but Beijing advanced the law itself after the protests last year.

Opponents of the anthem bill say it is a blow to freedom of expression in the city, while Beijing officials previously said that the law would foster a patriotic spirit and the country’s socialist core values.

From Beirut to Hong Kong, protests evoke global frustration

October 26, 2019

BEIRUT (AP) — In Hong Kong, it was a complicated extradition dispute involving a murder suspect. In Beirut, it was a proposed tax on the popular WhatsApp messenger service. In Chile, it was a 4-cent hike in subway fares.

Recent weeks have seen mass protests and clashes erupt in far-flung places triggered by seemingly minor actions that each came to be seen as the final straw. The demonstrations are fueled by local grievances, but reflect worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises.

Where past waves of protests, like the 2011 Arab Spring or the rallies that accelerated the breakup of the Soviet Union, took aim at dictatorships, the latest demonstrations are rattling elected governments. The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.

THE PEOPLE STILL WANT THE FALL OF THE REGIME

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese poured into the streets after the government floated a new tax on WhatsApp on the heels of an austerity package that came in response to an increasingly severe fiscal crisis.

The protests rapidly escalated into an indictment of the entire post-civil war order , in which a sectarian power-sharing arrangement has transformed former warlords and other elites into a permanent political class. In the three decades since the war ended, the same leaders have used patronage networks to get themselves re-elected again and again even as the government has failed to reliably provide basic services like electricity, water and trash collection.

A similar story has unfolded in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, where a government that distributes power and top offices among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has calcified into a corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries as services and infrastructure fall into further ruin despite the country’s considerable oil wealth.

“Thieves! Thieves!” protesters in both countries chanted this week.

“Massive economic mismanagement coupled with spiraling corruption have pauperized large segments of the Arab people,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It is no wonder then that millions of Arabs are fed up.”

The protests in both countries target governments that are close to Iran and backed by its heavily armed local allies, raising fears of a violent backlash. Nearly 200 Iraqis have been killed in recent clashes with security forces, and supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group have brawled with protesters in Beirut.

“There is no magical bullet or easy answer to the severe crisis of governance in Arab lands,” Gerges said. “The struggle will be fierce and long and costly, but there is no turning back.”

RISING UP AGAINST A RISING CHINA

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in early June after the semiautonomous city passed an extradition bill that put residents at risk of being sent to China’s judicial system. At one point, protesters said they had brought 2 million people into the streets.

Authorities were forced to drop the extradition proposal , which was triggered by the need to resolve the status of a murder suspect wanted for killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. But by then, the movement had snowballed to include demands for full democracy in the form of direct elections for the city’s top leader.

Since China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the city’s leaders have been selected by an elite committee made up mostly of pro-Beijing tycoons. Local councillors and half of the Asian financial center’s legislature are directly elected, but the other half are chosen by representatives from the finance, tourism, catering, accounting and other industries, which adds to the public discontent over stifled promises of democracy.

Underlying the Hong Kong protest movement are rising fears about China’s tightening grip on the city and worries that Beijing is reneging on promises not to meddle with Hong Kong’s Western-style civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary.

Protesters also fear China’s technology-powered authoritarianism. Wearing masks to conceal their identities, they have cut down “smart lampposts” and smashed surveillance cameras. They worry about artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition surveillance systems capturing their biometric data and sending it for processing by Chinese technology giants to track and identify them.

UNREST IN WEALTHY, DEMOCRATIC CHILE

On Friday, an estimated 1 million Chileans filled the streets of the capital Santiago, more than ever took to the streets during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet or the democratic governments that came after him.

The protests were sparked by the subway fare hike but soon morphed into a mass movement against inequality in one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries. At least 19 people have been killed as protesters have clashed with police in recent days.

Protesters tried to force their way onto the grounds of Chile’s legislature Friday, provoking an evacuation of the building. Police fired tear gas to fend off hundreds of demonstrators on the perimeter as some lawmakers and administrative staff hurried out of the legislative building, which is in the port city of Valparaiso.

Marta Lagos, head of Latinobarometro, a nonprofit survey group in Chile, said the protests have exposed the shortcomings of the country’s political system. “There is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society,” Lagos said.

Struggling to contain the strife, President Sebastián Piñera’s administration announced increases in the minimum wage, raised minimum pensions by 20% and rolled back the subway fare increase.

He put a 9.2% increase in electricity prices on hold until the end of next year, but with analysts predicting his resignation and fresh elections, the consequences of that move could fall to his successor.

CATALAN PROTESTS TAKE A VIOLENT TURN

For years, Catalan separatists have held peaceful, festive marches, but the movement took a violent turn last week when protests erupted over the imprisonment of nine leaders who led a bid for independence from Spain in 2017.

That failed attempt left the separatist movement rudderless, with 12 of its leaders arrested and most of the rest fleeing the country, including former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.

New activist collectives have emerged in their place, including one calling itself the Tsunami Democratic, which uses its own app and encrypted messages to call for “civil disobedience.”

But one of its first calls to protest, after the Oct. 31 Supreme Court ruling jailing the leaders, turned into a massive siege of Barcelona’s international airport, with rioters clashing with police late into the night.

The group has borrowed some of its tactics and rhetoric from the Hong Kong protesters, and protesters in both places have staged demonstrations in support of one another, though most Hong Kong protesters have been careful not to push for independence from China — one of President Xi Jinping’s “red lines.”

That one movement is struggling against domination by one-party China while the other is rising up against a European democracy is a distinction that has been lost in the tear gas.

Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed.

Ties to China shape cautious reaction to Hong Kong protests

August 22, 2019

For Canada and the European Union, they are a “situation.” For President Donald Trump, a potential stumbling block in ongoing trade disputes. And for South Korea, an issue to be monitored. With the notable exception of Taiwan, cautious comments from the few governments willing to speak out on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong fall far short of support for the demonstrators. They are so mild that even the word “protest” itself was left out of the joint EU-Canada statement that was the most recent to infuriate the Chinese government. And the vast majority of countries are unwilling to risk that fury at all.

China’s weapon is also its greatest lure: a population of nearly 1.4 billion. Otherwise known as the world’s largest market, to be opened or closed at will. China has also become a major builder of roads, ports, power plants and other infrastructure in developing countries.

“It’s really an anodyne statement,” Theresa Fallon, a researcher on EU-Asia relations, said of the one released by the EU and Canada. “Of course the Chinese knew that these statements would be made, but they cracked down right away. They have zero tolerance for that. … Everyone is afraid to be punished by China.”

UNITED STATES, CANADA and EUROPE

In the early days of the protests, Trump described them as an internal matter. Then he suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping could resolve the situation by meeting with protest leaders.

On Sunday, he went a step further and said the use of Chinese troops to quell the demonstrations would worsen the current U.S.-China trade dispute, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“I mean if it’s another Tiananmen Square, I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there is violence,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey.

He and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the protests last week, according to Trudeau’s office. The Canadian leader has been among the most outspoken on the protest movement. He said the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong represent the region’s largest contingent of foreigners.

“We are going to continue to call upon the Chinese government to respect the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement that they have long abided by,” he said earlier this week.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang avoided commenting on Trump’s remarks directly, but referred to the president’s previous statements on the protests.

“We have noticed that President Trump has previously stated that Hong Kong is part of China, and that they must solve it themselves and do not need advice. We hope that the U.S. side can match its acts to its words,” Geng told reporters.

The European Union joined with Canada in a statement Saturday.

“It is crucial that restraint be exercised, violence rejected and urgent steps taken to de-escalate the situation. Engagement in a process of broad-based and inclusive dialogue, involving all key stakeholders, is essential.”

KOREAS: NORTH vs. SOUTH

South Korea has avoided criticizing China, its largest trading partner and a country believed to have significant leverage over rival North Korea.

“Our government is monitoring the latest moves in Hong Kong with interest and we hope this issue will be settled smoothly,” the Foreign Ministry said in response to a question from The Associated Press.

South Korea is currently preoccupied with stalled negotiations on how to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and trade disputes with Japan, and that could make Seoul even more reticent.

Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said even if there’s a Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, South Korea would likely end up expressing little more than “regrets” or “hopes for an early, peaceful resolution.”

As for North Korea, the country’s propaganda outlets have accused the United States and other Western countries of using the Hong Kong case as a chance to slander China and interfere in its domestic affairs.

“To take measure for internal affairs belongs to the sovereignty of relevant country,” the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary last week. “But the Western forces are obtrusively interfering in China’s internal affair to add fuel to the reckless moves of the dishonest elements, saying this or that.”

It didn’t directly refer to the United States but an earlier Rodong Sinmun commentary said that “the Western countries including the U.S. are using (the Hong Kong issue) as a golden opportunity to defame China while raising the level of threat and blackmail against China.”

North Korea has long bristled at any outside criticism of its own human rights conditions as a U.S.-led attempt to bring down its political system.

A Foreign Ministry statement on Aug. 11 said that “we fully support the stand and measures of the Chinese party and government for defending the sovereignty, security and reunification of the country and safeguarding the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”

SOUTHEAST ASIA

Southeast Asian countries generally have little need or desire to take a public stand on the Hong Kong protests.

Many try to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington, moving toward the Chinese end of the scale in recent years as China has projected its influence more vigorously. The poorer members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar —have become reliant on Beijing’s economic largesse, and virtually all have embraced China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to help expand their infrastructure, though often with reservations and in the case of the more developed nations, with some hard bargaining.

At the same time, several nations have publicly complained of China’s efforts at expanding its influence, especially its ambitious territorial claims over the South China Sea at the expanse of Beijing’s smaller neighbors.

AUSTRALIA and NEW ZEALAND

The leaders of both Australia and New Zealand have been measured in their comments.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison disagreed last week that the protests were beginning to show the “sprouts of terrorism,” as a Chinese official said, but he didn’t criticize the statement directly.

“My view is one to seek to de-escalate things, to encourage the chief executive of Hong Kong to be listening carefully to what people are saying in Hong Kong and work toward a peaceful and calm resolution of what is a very serious issue,” he said.

Australia warned China against interfering in related demonstrations in Australia after a Chinese diplomat praised Chinese students who clashed with supporters of the protests in Brisbane.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denied she was constrained in what she could say about China, and said her country’s stand on the protest movement has been consistent. China is a key export market for New Zealand and has overtaken Australia as New Zealand’s largest trading partner. The agricultural-driven economy of New Zealand relies on selling billions of dollars’ worth of milk powder to China, which is used in infant formula.

“De-escalation, peaceful dialogue on all sides, and, of course, a restoration of the ‘One China but two systems’ philosophy that has been in place for a significant period.”

BRITAIN

Britain handed Hong Kong over to Chinese rule in 1997, but 156 years as a colony left a mark.

Its last governor, Chris Patten, called for the government to be “outspoken” in defending the city’s freedom.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has previously described Britain as open for business from China and is now embroiled in Brexit, has been uncharacteristically silent on the protests. But his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, “condemned violent acts by all sides but emphasized the right to peaceful protest, noting that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people had chosen this route to express their views.”

China said Wednesday a staffer at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, who was earlier reported missing while on a trip to the mainland, has been given 15 days of administrative detention in the city of Shenzhen for violating a law on public order. The British Foreign Office has said it is “extremely concerned” about his situation.

TAIWAN

In Taiwan, support for the protests has been widespread, including among young Hong Kongers studying in the self-ruling democracy that China claims as its own territory.

On Saturday, a student group called “Hong Kong Outlanders” organized flash mobs, street film screenings and sit-ins in more than half a dozen cities, including in front of Taipei’s famous Taipei 101 skyscraper that is a frequent destination for Chinese visitors. Support groups have also collected hardhats and set up public outdoor galleries of protest art known as Lennon Walls.

“We understand that the leaders cannot speak up for Hong Kong because of the financial situation. It’s politics and money,” said Dora, a Hong Kong native living in Taiwan, who only gave her first name for fear of reprisal. “But we’re still reaching out for support and help from people of different countries to do whatever they can to help us.”

Public opinion surveys show generally strong but not overwhelming public support for the government’s backing of the protests, perhaps reflecting a general unwillingness for Taiwan to be identified with Hong Kong’s situation.

Though Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945, Taiwanese are swift to point out that they have been a de-facto independent state since Chiang Kai-shek relocated his Nationalist government there in 1949, rather than a British colony or a special administrative region governed by Beijing.

Perhaps more than anything, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen says and many believe the protests show China’s “one country, two systems” framework that Beijing also proposes imposing on Taiwan simply cannot work.

Tsai has expressed her personal support for the protests and said the island would consider taking in Hong Kong residents seeking asylum, something that drew an angry rebuke from Beijing on Monday. Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan’s offer would “cover up the crimes of a small group of violent militants” and encourage their “audacity in harming Hong Kong and turn Taiwan into a “heaven for ducking the law.”

Ma demanded that Taiwan’s government “cease undermining the rule of law” in Hong Kong, cease interfering in its affairs and not “condone criminals.”

Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Kiko Rosario in Manila, Philippines, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

China spotlights military drill amid Hong Kong protests

By Poornima Weerasekara

Beijing (AFP)

July 3, 2019

An army-linked newspaper in China has run photos of a week-old military drill in Hong Kong, a move analysts described as a warning to Beijing’s critics as the city grapples with a wave of anti-government protests.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a garrison in Hong Kong since the former British colony was returned to Beijing in 1997, but its troops generally keep a low profile and are rarely seen in uniform in public.

The unit’s routine military exercises have not attracted much attention in the past.

But a PLA-affiliated newspaper posted photos of the week-old military drill on Tuesday — a day after pro-democracy protesters ransacked Hong Kong’s legislature and left anti-Beijing messages on its walls in an unprecedented show of anger.

Huge rallies have shaken the semi-autonomous territory since last month, sparked by opposition to a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.

The PLA Daily said on its verified account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform that the joint exercise last Wednesday — which involved ground forces, the navy and the air force — were aimed at “reviewing and raising the units’ combat abilities in emergency dispatches”.

The photos showed Chinese soldiers pointing automatic rifles on a boat, a PLA helicopter, and warships.

“The intention of this exercise is obvious. It is to warn the Hong Kong independence elements and to deter foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs,” said Ni Lexiong of the Shanghai National Defence Strategy Institute.

“If things develop to a more extreme level, and if the Hong Kong government isn’t able to cope with the situation, the central government may use troops.”

– ‘Blatant challenge’ –

Zhu Yonghua, a naval commander involved in the exercise, told the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily that the drills will help improve the Chinese military’s ability to “help the Hong Kong government protect the lives and property of its citizens”.

Beijing on Tuesday called for a criminal investigation into the storming of the Hong Kong legislature, which it described as a “blatant challenge” to the “one country, two systems” policy that has given the city its semi-autonomous status for 22 years.

China has also lashed out against “foreign interference” in Hong Kong.

“The announcement of the PLA exercise by China’s state media is a not-so-subtle message to Hong Kong and the world that China would ultimately be willing to resort to force in order to secure its interests in Hong Kong,” said Adam Ni, a researcher on Chinese foreign and security policy at Macquarie University in Australia.

The Chinese military received official ownership of a piece of prime Hong Kong waterfront land Saturday, which will allow its warships to berth in the city’s famed Victoria Harbour in future.

Source: Sino Daily.

Link: http://www.sinodaily.com/reports/China_spotlights_military_drill_amid_Hong_Kong_protests_999.html.

Hong Kong braces for more protests on handover anniversary

June 30, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — More than 50,000 people rallied in support of the Hong Kong police on Sunday as the semi-autonomous territory braced for another day of protests on the anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China.

The crowd filled a park in front of the legislature and chanted “Thank you” to the police, who have been criticized for using tear gas and rubber bullets during clashes with demonstrators that left dozens injured on June 12. Some carried Chinese flags. Police estimated the turnout at 53,000.

A protest march has been called for Monday, the third in three weeks, this one on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. Activists have also said they will try to disrupt an annual flag-raising ceremony attended by senior Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials in the morning.

Police have erected tall barriers and shut off access to Golden Bauhinia Square, where the flag-raising will be held, to prevent protesters from massing there overnight. The anniversary always draws protests, but this year’s is expected to be larger than usual because of widespread opposition to a government proposal to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. More than a million people took to the streets in two previous marches in June, organizers estimate.

The proposal has awakened broader fears that China is eroding the freedoms and rights that Hong Kong is guaranteed for 50 years after the handover under a “one country, two systems” framework. The government has already postponed debate on the extradition bill indefinitely, leaving it to die, but protest leaders want the legislation formally withdrawn and the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. They also are demanding an independent inquiry into police actions on June 12.

Hundreds of people gathered Sunday at the Education University of Hong Kong to hold a moment of silence and lay flowers for a 21-year-old student who fell to her death the previous day in an apparent suicide. Hong Kong media reports said she wrote a message on a wall stating the protesters’ demands and asking others to persist.

“It’s reminding us we need to keep going on the process of fighting with the, I wouldn’t say fighting with the government, but we need to keep going on fighting not to have the extradition law,” said student Gabriel Lau.

Hong Kong protests fade as activists mull next steps

June 18, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s leader planned to speak to the media Tuesday afternoon after protests over legislation that sparked fears of Beijing’s increasing control in the former British colony. Government headquarters reopened in the morning as the number of protesters outside dwindled to a few dozen.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously had suspended work on the extradition bill that ignited the protests but still faces calls to resign for having sought to push through the legislation, which would allow some suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.

She was scheduled to hold a news conference at 4 p.m. but it wasn’t clear if she would take questions. Late Monday, Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Stephen Lo Wai-chung, sought to defuse anger over aggressive police tactics during protests last week. He said only five of 15 people arrested during the clashes were charged with rioting, a serious offense that can result in a prison term of up to 10 years. Another 17 people were arrested on lesser charges.

Lo still defended as appropriate the police response to the protests, which included the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and steel batons against protesters who removed crowd control and traffic barriers.

Those tactics helped draw nearly 2 million people, young and old, into a march on Sunday, according to organizers’ estimates. Protesters were demanding Lam scrap the extradition bill and authorities apologize for the police actions.

A member of the Executive Council, Lam’s cabinet, told reporters that Hong Kong’s leaders made a “big mistake” in not consulting the public before proposing the legislation. Lam Ching-choi said of Carrie Lam, “I believe she will communicate her apologies to the public in the near future.”

The activists have rejected Lam’s apologies for her handling of the legislation, which touched a nerve not easily soothed in a city anxious over the increasingly authoritarian Communist rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The uproar also highlights worries that Hong Kong is losing the special autonomous status China promised it when it took control in 1997. On June 9, as many as 1 million people demonstrated to express their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China.

The scenes are similar to demonstrations in 2014, when protesters camped for weeks in the streets demanding a direct election to decide the city’s chief executive, who is chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

One concern over the extradition bill is that it might be used to send critics of Communist Party rule to the mainland to face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials. Lam insists the legislation is needed for Hong Kong to uphold justice and not become a magnet for fugitives. It would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over the judicial independence of its courts and its human rights record. The vast majority of Hong Kong residents fled persecution, political chaos or poverty and famine in the Chinese mainland. They value stability and but also cherish freedoms of dissent and legal protections not allowed for people on the mainland.

Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

June 17, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police and protesters faced off Monday as authorities began trying to clear the streets of a few hundred who remained near the city government headquarters after massive demonstrations that stretched deep into the night before.

The police asked for cooperation in clearing the road but said the protesters could stay on the sidewalks. Protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers. The move came after activists rejected an apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.

Groups of police, most in normal uniforms not riot gear, sought to clear the roads of metal and plastic barricades to enable traffic to pass through. In some places, the protesters quickly moved to put them back to block traffic.

Hundreds of protesters were sitting or lying along a main road through downtown, but they were scattered over a relatively wide area. Activists called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.

Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march. A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice 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.

The scenes were similar to those seen nearly five years earlier, when protesters camped for weeks in the streets to protest rules that prevented the direct election of the city’s chief executive, the top local official.

One of the activists arrested after those demonstrations, Joshua Wong, was due to be released from prison Monday. He served half of a two-month jail sentence for contempt. After daybreak Monday, police announced that they want to clear the streets. Soon after, police lined up several officers deep and faced off against several hundred demonstrators on a street in central Hong Kong.

The night before, as protesters reached the march’s end thousands gathered outside the city government headquarters and the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who on Saturday suspended her effort to force passage of the bill.

Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.

The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down. Protesters are also angered over the forceful tactics by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam’s decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.

In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong.” “The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.

Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists. “This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement. 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. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.

“It doesn’t really matter because the next one would be just as evil,” said Kayley Fung, 27. Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring 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 in 1997.

After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.

She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators. Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record. Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.

Associated Press journalists Tassanee Vejpongsa, Christopher Bodeen and Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.

Massive protests draw apology from Hong Kong leadership

June 16, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong citizens marched for hours Sunday in a massive protest that drew a late-in-the-day apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.

The demonstration looked likely to match in scale one a week earlier that brought as many as 1 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 China 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 by police in quelling unrest at a June 12 demonstration. Periodically, the shouts of the protesters standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the police headquarters would crescendo in a roar that reverberated through the narrow concrete canyons of the red-light district of Wanchai.

Smaller crowds stood chanting outside Lam’s office building. The statement issued late 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 apologized 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 Harbor as tourists and shoppers who drive much of the Asian financial hub’s economy looked on. At the march’s end, hundreds sat wearily around the city government headquarters. Some were singing. Some listening to speeches. Some just resting.

“Our demands are simple. Carrie Lam must leave office, the extradition law must be withdrawn and the police must apologize for using extreme violence against their own people,” bank worker John Chow said as he marched with a group of his friends. “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 here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring 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, some pushing strollers or carrying slumbering infants. Few wore face masks or seemed to be trying to hide their identities, in contrast with demonstrations Wednesday, when participants expressed worries over possible retribution from the authorities.

Protesters also are angry over the way police used tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters in that smaller but more aggressive protest.

The police presence Sunday was considerably more relaxed, with officers deployed mainly to direct traffic as the protesters wound their way through Hong Kong’s commercial center 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 Saturday after hanging a protest banner that read in part, “Make Love, No Shoot” and “No Extradition to China.”

The man slipped from the grasp of rescuers after clinging for a time to scaffolding outside a shopping mall. He missed a large cushion set up to capture him, and was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

Many protesters wore ribbons on their shirts and carried placards showing protesters who had been beaten bloody last week. Pro-democracy activists were calling for a general strike on Monday despite Lam’s decision to suspend work on the legislation. Some labor unions, teachers associations and other groups were planning boycotts of work and classes, demanding the Lam administration retire the proposed amendments and not bring them up again for passage at a later stage.

“We encourage all the public to carry on the campaign,” said Bonnie Leung, a leader of the pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front. “If any new violence takes place, it will be the responsibility of the police.”

The Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts. Many in Hong Kong fear the extradition bill would undermine freedoms enjoyed here but not elsewhere in China.

“China just wants to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city,” said Alex To, 54, who runs a small business. “Carrie Lam is just a figurehead. Everything depends on the attitudes of the leaders in Beijing.”

After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.

She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators. Lam maintains that the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record. Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.

Hong Kong protesters wary of Chinese surveillance technology

June 14, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Young Hong Kong residents protesting a proposed extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial are seeking to safeguard their identities from potential retaliation by authorities employing mass data collection and sophisticated facial recognition technology.

Agnes, a second-year college student who declined to give her surname, said she donned a face mask as soon as she left a subway train in the downtown Admiralty district to join Wednesday’s overnight protest by pro-democracy demonstrators.

“Everybody coming out is wearing masks because you don’t know what people will do with the information,” Agnes said as friends nodded in agreement. None of them would give their names, saying they worried about how school authorities would react if Hong Kong or China’s central government asked for information about them.

To further protect their privacy, the group was buying single-trip train tickets with cash rather than using their stored-value electronic cash cards that forward information on travel and locations to a central repository.

The semi-autonomous Chinese territory has installed thousands of security cameras but the data is mostly kept private. In mainland China, the government openly uses the technology to track down people considered politically unreliable, particularly among Muslim Uighurs, Tibetans and other minority groups.

In addition to closed-circuit television cameras spaced throughout the city, dozens of television stations and other news outlets have been broadcasting and publishing images of protesters. Attitudes among younger Hong Kong residents such as Agnes reflect a growing sophistication among government critics since massive 2014 protests that shut down much of the downtown area in a demand for universal suffrage but ultimately fizzled without achieving their goals. Since then, the government has sentenced many of the leaders of what has become known as “Occupy Central” or the “Umbrella Movement” to prison on vague charges of causing public disturbances or inciting other people to do so.

Hong Kong police officials on Thursday said they made 11 arrests among Wednesday’s protesters and defended their right to track down those who had been sent to hospitals for treatment of injuries. Chinese authorities were recently discovered to be maintaining real-time data on more than 2.5 million people in western China, updated constantly with GPS coordinates of their precise whereabouts. Alongside their names, birthdates and places of employment, there were notes on the places that they had most recently visited, including mosques, hotels and restaurants.

The database appeared to have been recording people’s movements tracked by facial recognition technology, logging more than 6.7 million coordinates in a span of 24 hours. It illustrated how far China has taken facial recognition and served as a reminder of how easily technology companies can leave supposedly private records exposed to global snoopers.

Chinese authorities have also begun deploying a new surveillance tool that uses people’s body shapes and how they walk to identify them, even when their faces are hidden from cameras. Already used by police on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai, “gait recognition” is part of a push across China to develop artificial intelligence and data-driven surveillance that is raising concern about how far the technology will go.

Older protesters professed less concern about being caught on video at Wednesday’s demonstration, saying they were already secure in their lives and careers. “I don’t give it too much thought,” said Andy Lau, an engineering professor at a Hong Kong polytechnic who was passing out leaflets calling for an end to police attacks and the resignation of the current Hong Kong government amid a crowd of protesters on a pedestrian bridge opposite the Legislative Council.

However, Lau said younger protesters were well advised to guard their identities and personal data if they want to join the demonstrations. “It’s not just a problem after you cross the border into China. Even here in Hong Kong the police or school leaders can come tracking you down and knocking on your door at night,” Lau said.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas, water as protest escalates

June 12, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong police fired tear gas and high-pressure water hoses against protesters who had massed outside government headquarters Wednesday in opposition to a proposed extradition bill that has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the semiautonomous territory.

The afternoon violence marked a major escalation in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s biggest political crisis in years. It came after protesters earlier in the day forced the delay of a legislative debate over the bill, which would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China.

The overwhelming young crowd had overflowed onto a major downtown road as they overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the government building. But when some appeared to have breached the police cordon around offices of the government and Legislative Council in the city state’s Wanchai district, leading to the police response, which also included firing nonlethal projectiles.

Earlier, a curt government statement said the session scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. would be “changed to a later time.” Officials gave no indication of when that would be and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam canceled a scheduled news briefing.

The delay appeared to have been at least a temporary victory for the bill’s opponents, whose protests are the largest since pro-democracy demonstrations closed down parts of the Asian financial center for more than three months in 2014. Some businesses closed for the day, and labor strikes and class boycotts were called.

The protests are a challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, who has in the past said he would not tolerate Hong Kong being used as a base to challenge the party’s authority. But they are also giving vent to young Hong Kongers alienated by a political process dominated by the territory’s economic elite.

Protesters said they hoped the blockade would persuade Lam’s administration to shelve the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.

“We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back,” said a protester who gave only his first name, Marco, to avoid possible repercussions from authorities. Another protester, who gave her name only as King, also out of fear of repercussions, said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.

“We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” she said. Dressed in black T-shirts and jeans, many protesters appeared undaunted by demands to disperse from police. Protesters clashed with police intermittently throughout the day, occasionally hurling traffic cones and other objects over metal traffic barriers. Police initially responded with pepper spray, which was met with unfurled parasols as used in 2014 pro-democracy protests that became known as the Umbrella Movement.

The demonstrators also appeared mindful of Beijing’s growing use of electronic surveillance such as facial recognition technology to build dossiers on those it considers politically unreliable, with many donning surgical or anti-pollution masks to hide their features, as well as to safeguard against tear gas.

Such protests are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border. In a statement read out to reporters, Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Mathew Cheung urged the protesters to clear the streets.

“I would also like to ask the people in this gathering to stay calm and leave the scene as soon as possible and not to commit any crime,” he added. Under its “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997. However, China’s ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.

The government pushed ahead with plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory’s largest political demonstration in more than a decade.

Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote is scheduled on June 20. The protests are widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, where Xi has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.

Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.

Lam said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.

She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts. Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong’s legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.

Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.

Those in Hong Kong who anger China’s central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012. The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.

Associated Press journalists Raf Wober and Alice Fung in Hong Kong and Sally Ho in Seattle contributed to this report.

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