HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands gathered in sweltering heat in Hong Kong on Sunday for the latest in a series of mass protests over an extradition bill that has plunged the Chinese-ruled financial hub into crisis and revived public opposition to Beijing’s tightening grip.
Millions have rallied over the past two months in an unprecedented show of force against Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, triggering the worst social turmoil to rock the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule 22 years ago.
Tens of thousands are expected to march from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to Wan Chai, just one metro stop away, after police shortened the route, citing safety concerns.
Rally organizers lost their appeal to have the march route end in Central district, close to the scene where police in June fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists in some of the most violent protests to rock the city in decades.
The protest comes a day after tens of thousands gathered to voice support for the police force, who some have accused of using excessive force against activists, and call for an end to the violence.
Last weekend, two initially peaceful protests degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding police and activists, resulting in scores of injuries and more than 40 arrests.
Lam has apologized for the turmoil the extradition bill has caused and declared it “dead”. Opponents of the bill, which would allow extradition to China and which they fear could be used to silence dissent, say nothing short of its full withdrawal will do.
Under the terms of the handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.
But for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
The protests have at times paralyzed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city. Officials have also warned about the impact of the unrest on the economy.
A commentary published in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper on Sunday said: “If violence continues, it will inevitably deal a greater blow to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
China has condemned the violent protests as an “undisguised challenge” to the one country, two systems formula.
Police late on Friday seized a cache of explosives and weapons in an industrial building in the New Territories district of Tsuen Wan. Three people were arrested in connection with the seizure, which police described as the largest ever of its kind in Hong Kong.
They said it was unclear if the explosives were related to the protest.
Government and police headquarters, which have been targeted by protesters in previous rallies, were barricaded by massive water barriers on Sunday, while media said 5,000 police were being deployed for the rally.
Several major roads were closed off and global bank HSBC, in a rare move, pulled down large metal barriers on the street level of its gleaming skyscraper building.
Reporting by Donny Kwok and Felix Tam in HONG KONG; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie