HONG KONG >> Protesters in Hong Kong left the streets, averting possible clashes Monday after haggling for hours with police by moving to areas near the city’s government headquarters.
The demonstrators who stayed after a massive protest march the day before, demanding that Chief Executive Carrie Lam abandon a proposed extradition bill, were seen streaming Monday morning into a space outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council after police who had cleared it reopened the area. Their decision to move allowed police to reopen streets to traffic.
The activists have rejected an apology from Lam for her handling of the legislation, which has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.
“We are very angry that Carrie Lam has not responded to the demands of all the protesters, but now is the time to talk about strategy, and talk about strategy is to how about how to make the whole struggle into a long-term struggle and not a day struggle, so if Carrie Lam does not respond to the five demands by the protesters, people will come back and the struggle will continue,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a former legislator and activist.
Shortly after daybreak, the police had asked for cooperation in clearing the road but said the protesters could stay on the sidewalks.
For a time, the 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.
Hundreds were lying or sitting on the roads until they agreed to move to the plaza outside the government building and a spacious nearby park.
Activists had 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 released from prison Monday after serving half of a two-month jail sentence for contempt. He headed to join protesters gathered near Hong Kong’s government headquarters soon afterward, and also called in a tweet for Lam to resign and for a halt to “all political persecutions.”
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.