Hong Kong saw its biggest demonstration since sit-in protests over proposed electoral reforms brought the city to a halt five years ago. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to voice their concern about China’s proposed extradition bill. Protesters waved placards, shared poignant chants and marched to call for the end of the extradition law being planned for the autonomous island by China. But what exactly is happening in Hong Kong and why are people protesting?
Protesters gathered to rally against China’s new bill on Sunday, June 9, which proposes to send suspects to mainland China to face trial.
Extradition in international law is the removal of one fugitive from one state to another under a prearranged agreement.
Critics to the bill say those in the former British colony would be exposed to China’s deeply flawed justice system, and would lead to further erosion of the city’s judicial independence.
Hong Kong protests: What exactly is happening in Hong Kong now?
Human rights groups say the legislation could thwart Hong Kong’s democratic independence and expose its population to the Chinese judicial system.
Campaigners further alleged detainees in China routinely face torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems in accessing lawyers.
But supporters say safeguards are in place to prevent anyone facing religious or political persecution from being extradited to mainland China, and that the proposal will plug loopholes.
Hong Kong protests: Hundreds of thousands gathered in Hong Kong to protest the extradition bill
What are the proposed changes?
The changes would enable extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoing such as murder and rape.
The requests would then be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Hong Kong officials have said Hong Kong courts will have the final say over whether to grant such extradition requests, and suspects accused of political and religious crimes will not be extradited.
Hong Kong protests: Protesters march during a demonstration against a controversial extradition law
The government has sought to reassure the public with some concessions, such as promising to only hand over fugitives for offences carrying maximum sentences of at least seven years.
There has been a lot of public opposition to the proposed extradition law, with critics sayinf people would be subject to arbitrary detention, unfair trial and torture under China’s judicial system.
Hong Kong protests: The protesters fear the policy could be used to arrest and transfer activists
Why the change now?
This proposed has emerged after an apparent gap in the legal system was discovered when a 19-year-old Hong Kong man allegedly murdered his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend while they were holidaying in Taiwan together in February last year.
The man fled Taiwan and returned to Hong Kong last year.
Taiwanese officials have sought help from Hong Kong authorities to extradite the man, but Hong Kong officials say they cannot comply because of the lack of an extradition agreement with Taiwan.
But the Taiwanese government has said it will not seek to extradite the murder suspect under the proposed changes, and has urged Hong Kong to handle the case separately.
Hong Kong protests: Demostrators show their umbrellas as a sign of the umbrella movement of 2014
How did the protest unfold?
For several hours on Sunday, protesters marched dressing in white, in a mainly peaceful demonstrations.
Protesters included business men and women, lawyers, students, pro-democracy advocates and religious groups.
Chants of “no China extradition, no evil law” were echoed through the streets while many carried banners saying “Scrap the evil law!” and “Oppose China extradition!”
The march was seen as a major challenge to Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, who has pushed for the amendments to be passed before July.
Hong Kong protests: Protesters move a barricade during a clash at Legislative Council
A 59-year-old professor Rocky Change said: “This is the end game for Hong Kong, it is a matter of life or death. That’s why I come.”
Lawyers had worn black in a silent protest held earlier in the week over the same bill.
After the march concluded, clashes erupted between hundreds of demonstrators and police.
Protesters, some wearing surgical masks, tried to break into the Legislative Council complex, throwing crowd control barriers around, and police in riot gear used batons and pepper spray.
Hong Kong protests: Anti-extradition law placards held by protesters
Some of the protesters and policemen were later seen with faces covered in blood.
China has defended its bill saying it is a formality to close loopholes in the system but political dissidents fear it is a tool for being silenced.
Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule after the British handed back its former colony in 1997 after the lease expired.
The switchover was agreed on the basis that the financial hub’s population would stay protected with is own freedoms and legal system.
Hong Kong protests: Demonstrators cross their arms to form the “No” symbol
Since then, the population of more than seven million people have become more concerned about their rights and what the future holds.
Although it is classed as an autonomous region, Hong Kong is increasingly being targeted for reform by China.
Legislative debates about the bill begin on Wednesday and it could become law by the end of June.
Hong Kong officials say suspects who are facing charges with a maximum of at least seven years will be the only ones affected and safeguards will be adequate.
A government official said on Sunday: “We continue to listen to a wide cross-section of views and opinions and remain open to suggestions on ways to improve the new regime.”
Hong Kong protest: Anti-extradition protesters gather near City Hall in Hong Kong
Is Hong Kong under Chinese rule?
Hong Kong is a former British colony and is semi-autonomous under the principle of “one country, two systems” after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The city has its own established laws and its residents enjoy civil liberties unavailable to their mainland counterparts.
Hong Kong has entered into extradition agreements with 20 countries, including the UK and the US, but no such agreements have been reached with mainland China despite ongoing negotiations in the past two decades.
Critics have attributed such failures to poor legal protection for defendants under Chinese law.