Hong Kong was plunged into a fresh political crisis on Sunday night after more than half a million people took to the streets to thwart a proposed China extradition bill law that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial.
Organizers said the turnout outstripped a demonstration in 2003 when 500,000 hit the streets to challenge government plans for tighter national security laws.
Sunday’s outpouring was already raising the pressure on the administration of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her official backers in Beijing.
“She has to withdraw the China Extradition bill and resign,” veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To told crowds outside the city’s parliament and government headquarters on Sunday night.
“The whole of Hong Kong is against her.”
To spoke, thousands were still arriving, having started the march five hours earlier, filling four lanes of a major thoroughfare. Some sat in a nearby park singing “Hallelujah” while police increased their numbers around the area.
Lam had yet to comment on the rally. The demonstration capped weeks of growing outrage in the business, diplomatic and legal communities, which fear corrosion of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy and the difficulty of ensuring basic judicial protections in mainland China.
The protest descended into violence in the early hours of Monday as several hundred protesters clashed with a similar number of police outside the city’s parliament.
Protesters charged police lines to try to force their way into the Legislative Council building, and police charged back, using pepper spray, after warning the protesters. The standoff ended in the early hours of Monday.
US and European officials have issued formal warnings – concern matched by international business and human rights lobbies that fear the changes would dent Hong Kong’s rule of law. The former British colony was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 amid guarantees of autonomy and various freedoms including a separate legal system, which many diplomats and business leaders believe is the city’s strongest remaining asset.
The unusually broad opposition to the rendition bill displayed on Sunday came amid a series of government moves to deepen links between southern mainland China and Hong Kong.
Police had yet to issue their own estimate of the protest size. But as tens of thousands reached the Legislative Council in the Admiralty business district, the starting point in Victoria Park was crowded with thousands more still waiting to join the march.
Some carried yellow umbrellas – a symbol of the pro-democracy Occupy protests that choked key city streets for 79 days in 2014.
Reuters witnesses at various key points estimated the crowd at several hundred thousand.
Chants of “No China extradition, no evil law” echoed through the city streets, while other marchers called for Lam and other senior officials to step down.