Pressure builds on Hong Kong leader as democracy activist vows to join protests
Activist Joshua Wong, who has become the face of Hong Kong’s push for full democracy, walked free from prison on Monday and vowed to join a mass protest movement demanding that the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, steps down.
His release comes as a political crisis in the Chinese-ruled city enters its second week, amid growing uncertainty over the fate of Lam and a controversial extradition bill she postponed at the weekend.
“I will join to fight against this evil law,” said Wong, 22, who was one of the leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella” pro-democracy protests that blocked major roads in Hong Kong for 79 days.
“I believe this is the time for her, Carrie Lam the liar, to step down.”
Wong acknowledged he still had to fully grasp the scale of the crisis at a time when Chinese President Xi Jinping is grappling with a deepening US trade war, an ebbing economy and regional strategic tension.
Protest organizers said almost two million people turned out on Sunday to demand that Lam resign, in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China’s relationship with the territory since it was handed back by Britain 22 years ago.
The mass rally forced Lam to apologize late on Sunday over her plans to push through the extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial.
Even after her apology, Hong Kong opposition politicians are echoing marchers’ calls for both Lam and the law to go.
“Her government cannot be an effective government, and will have much, much, much difficulties to carry on,” veteran Democratic Party legislator James To told government-funded broadcaster RTHK.
“I believe the central people’s government will accept her resignation.”
However, the official China Daily said Beijing’s leaders would continue to back Lam, as it lashed out at foreign “meddling” in the crisis.
China’s support for Lam will “not waver, not in the face of street violence nor the ill-intentioned interventions of foreign governments,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
While Lam delayed the bill, it has yet to be completely shelved, despite domestic and international fears that it could imperil the status of Hong Kong as a financial hub.
“We cannot accept her apology, it doesn’t remove all our threats,” said social worker Brian Chau, one of several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.
Some demonstrators cleared rubbish left after the vast, but peaceful, march while others sang ‘Hallelujah’, a gospel song that has become a feature of the protests against Lam.
The headquarters will stay closed on Monday, the government said. Standing by were a smattering of uniformed police without riot gear, in contrast to their appearance during recent skirmishes with protesters.
Protesters end highway occupation
Meanwhile, an AFP reporter said that anti-government protesters in Hong Kong ended their occupation of a major highway outside parliament Monday morning, allowing traffic to flow again.
Police had spent the morning pleading with a few hundred holdouts to clear the usually busy road and the group eventually relented without any confrontation. Most of the remaining demonstrators moved to a nearby park.
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.
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 seven million.