[OPINION] HK protesters could test the will of Carrie Lam, Beijing over fugitive law
Yet another black march has begun Monday afternoon, July 1, in Hong Kong from a Causeway Bay park to the government seat in Admiralty against the now-suspended extradition bill.
It is the 22nd annual handover march to mark the July 1, 1997 handover of Hong Kong's sovereignty to China by Britain under a "one country, two systems" principle.
This year's march could be another cornerstone and could make or break beleaguered Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has refused to withdraw the bill altogether.
Monday's march follows the groundbreaking June 12 and June 16 rallies where one million to two million people in seemingly rudderless and spontaneous decisions joined in one voice to demand the extradition law be scrapped amid concerns it could be used to transfer Hongkongers suspected of alleged crimes, including political dissidents, to China.
Organizers Civil Human Rights Front expected massive turnout, given also that it is a public holiday Monday.
I have lived in Hong Kong for 30 odd years working as a journalist with mainstream major newspapers South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Standard.
I have witnessed both as a journalist and as a curious protester a few rallies that have riled usually poker-faced Hongkongers, from the June Fourth rally that saw up to a million black-clad marchers in 1989, to the 2003 handover rally of 500,000 against legislating the Basic Law's Article 23 on national security, and the 79-day Umbrella Movement sparked by police teargasing young protesters who laid siege to Civic Square near the Central Government Offices-Legislative Council complex in Tamar.
Since her assumption of office on July 1, 2017, the city's first female leader Carrie Lam, who of course has the backing of China's core leader Xi Jinping, has promised not to raise the specter of Article 23 nor restart discussions on electoral reforms, which set off the Umbrella Movement.
But in February this year, Lam's government proposed an amendment to the extradition law, citing the case of a Hong Kong student wanted in Taiwan for murdering his pregnant Hong Kong girlfriend while they were on holiday at the self-ruled island – considered a runaway province of mainland China.
Hong Kong pan-democrats at the Legislative Council tried to raise public awareness of the bill's consequences, citing distrust in the mainland legal system.
It was not until the business community voiced concerns about the fugitive bill that the public finally woke up.
There have been protests before, but no single issue has sparked as much concern and outrage as the extradition bill since 2014.
Unlike in 2014, however, the movement No to China Extradition seemed to have no distinct leader or leaders but arose out of innate fear for their personal freedoms in the next 28 years when Hong Kong truly becomes part and parcel of China.
The Civil Human Rights Front has been organizing the July 1 march since 1997, when a small group protested the handover ceremonies outside the Legislative Council in Central.
The front, however, has said it provides the platform – as it is a legally organized group to file a police permit – for a non-violent march of thousands to join the route from Victoria Park to Admiralty.
Monday's handover march against the extradition bill reiterates calls for Lam to resign, an independent inquiry into the June 12 police crackdown, and to retract the characterization of that mass rally as a "riot."
Demonstrators also call for the restart of the electoral reforms and the release of all political prisoners.
Hong Kong watches with bated breath if the demonstrators would keep their vow for a peaceful assembly and for "Asia's finest" police to maintain their restraint they have adopted since.
As in major protests in Hong Kong, would it also be a given that a small group of radical masked protesters would stay on and try to instigate some form of violence? And would the some 5,000-riot police reportedly on standby respond in kind with their weapons cocked?
Like many, I am concerned about my own personal safety. Journalists have been urged to wear anti-riot gear, including goggles, full-face masks, neon vests, and white helmets with PRESS signs prominently displayed. But media safety guidelines can only go so far.
Frontline reporters have talked about getting used to the eye-watering tear gas that felt stronger than the ones police used to fire in September 2014.
But when I was among the crowd that police fired on during what I thought was a lull in the police action on June 12, it was not a good experience.
Police used twice as many tear gas and rubber bullets on June 12, initially to drive away protesters from a nearby avenue after hours of stalemate. They then fired tear gas to systematically move groups of mostly peaceful crowds of protesters by the hundreds further away late into the night on June 12 until weary protesters decided to go home.
You wouldn't want to be caught in the firing line. One Filipina activist recalled protesters using vinegar and water to clean their eyes by much more unforgiving Philippine police and military troops.
Lam's wingman, Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, in his weekly blog – again in Chinese only – appealed for calm Sunday, June 30, on the eve of the handover anniversary march.
Cheung said in his blog that the government has learned from its mistakes and promised a "humble and patient" approach when talking to the young in future. The young were promised the same after 2014, when the tide of public opinion turned against the Umbrella Movement.
Lam has hidden herself away from the public, cancelling Executive Council meetings in the past two Tuesdays. She won't be hidden for long, as she is expected to face legislators in a scheduled question and answer session at the Legco this coming Wednesday, July 3.
Lam for sure would be biding for time and let passions ease. But the summer of discontent could persist, until most of Hong Kong are assured there is a brighter future for them and the future generations to remain in the city beyond 2047.
Even leaving the city for good isn't an option for many. They ask where they can go to start a new life.
I have asked several Hong Kong-Chinese whether they would consider living in the Philippines. They all are horrified by my suggestion, citing the extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte. – Rappler.com
Mary Ann Benitez is a Hong Kong-based award-winning senior writer and editor who has worked in the city's South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Standard, TVB, and online media industry over the past 3 decades.
In these changing times, courage and clarity become even more important.
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