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Calm before another storm as Hong Kong protesters brace for weekend rally

HONG KONG – Black remained the color of the day Friday, June 14, for many Hongkongers who were in silent protest against the government's incessant insistence to pass an extradition amendment bill.

This comes as Chief Executive Carrie Lam's top Cabinet adviser said Friday it was now impossible for the Legislative Council (Legco) to continue debating the contentious bill after the "massive conflict" between police and demonstrators on Wednesday, June 12.

Also on Friday, 22 former senior government officials and lawmakers in a joint appeal urged current officials to advise the Chief Executive to withdraw the extradition bill.

Executive Council convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan separately told another Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) program that he had underestimated the reaction of the business sector to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.

In what could be a way out for Lam, Chan said the government must consider what to do next including whether it needs to provide more explanation or consultations on the bill.

He added that perhaps the government had not given sufficient explanation about the proposed legal amendments, and that this had sparked fear. 

Chan, a former legislator, is currently president of Asia Financial Holdings Limited and Asia Insurance Company Limited, as well as a Hong Kong deputy to the mainland's lawmaking body, the National People's Congress.

In their joint appeal, the group of 22 former officials and lawmakers said the ministers should resign if Lam ignored them.

The 22 included former secretary for security Peter Lai Hing-ling, former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-san, former Legislative Council president Andrew Wong Wang-fat, and former Liberal Party lawmaker Allen Lee Peng-fei.

Former deputy secretary for economic services Elizabeth Bosher, who is also among the group, told RTHK that many former civil servants, including herself, felt that the current ministers "are not really entirely acting on their conscience."

"We do understand that it's important they should show loyalty to the Chief Executive, but it's also very important that they speak from the heart and that they listen very carefully to the voices of Hong Kong people," Bosher said.

Sunday protest

Meanwhile, it's back to business especially for the railway transport monopoly, with the Admiralty MTR station – the main and closest passageway for protesters going to the Central Government Offices (CGO) and Legislative Council complex on Tamar – having opened Thursday, June 13.

It might be an uneasy lull today but the anger remains palpable as the city is bracing for another massive rally.

The Civil Human Rights Front has called on people to join a second protest on Sunday, June 16, and a general strike on Monday, June 17.

On Wednesday, the main thoroughfare in the heart of Central and Admiralty was paralyzed by tens of thousands of mostly young protesters wearing black who tried an Umbrella Movement 2.0 but was brutally stopped by riot police firing tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets in day-long running battles through the Tamar area.

The confrontation followed the June 9 march of 1.03 million people against the bill which seeks to extradite Hong Kong people suspected of crimes to mainland China. It was the biggest protest since the handover in 1997.

The use of excessive force has attracted criticisms and calls for the police chief to resign. It could stoke public sentiment for the Father's Day march happening on Sunday, June 16, from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to Legco in Tamar.

The violent clashes – already condemned as "riots" by Lam and the police – forced the cancellation of the Legco meeting, which should have seen through the second reading resumed debate of the extradition amendment bill for a third day Friday. Many had thought the pro-government Legco could pass the amendment by next Thursday, June 20, at the earliest if not for Wednesday's lockdown.

Legco is on amber alert, with all public services including guided tours, access to legislators through the Public Complaints Office, and the Legco cafeteria suspended until further notice.

But the House and Finance Committee meetings will go ahead on Friday afternoon, according to the Legco website. 

The CGO remains closed, and staff were asked "not to go to the workplace and should work in accordance with contingency plans." All visits to the CGO have also been postponed or cancelled.

Excessive force?

Activists have called for Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo Wai-chung to step down for his handling of Wednesday's protest, saying in a press conference Thursday that police fired more than 150 rounds of tear gas – more than double of 87 rounds of tear gas during the start of Occupy Central or the Umbrella Movement in September 2014.

Police also fired "several" rubber bullets and about 20 beanbag rounds to suppress protesters.

But he denied they used excessive force, explaining: "It is obvious that they (protesters) acted violently in an organized manner. At one location, police officers retreated to the drum area of the Legislative Council at the corner where we had no choice but to escalate the use of force to disperse the crowd with the view to protecting the personal safety of our colleagues and other civilian staff inside the premises."

"We contained the situation and maintained effective operation of the Legco. In fact, the behavior of the violent protesters yesterday imposed a serious threat to the public order," he said Thursday.

Police have arrested 11 persons in Wednesday's operation for disorderly conduct in public place, unlawful assembly, assaulting police officers, and other riot-related crimes. They have not been charged as of press time.

Strongly condemning the "violent behavior of the rioters," Lo said a total of 22 officers "have sustained various extents of physical injuries."

Barristers, businesses, expatriates, and locals who oppose the bill worry it would mean extraditing Hong Kong citizens alleged to have committed crimes to the mainland to face trials.

But protest leaders said the fight "adds oil" – the Chinglish lingo for "keep it up."

Since Thursday, police in riot gear have been maintaining a heavy presence at the Legco and Central Government Offices complex in Tamar. They have cordoned off the Legco building and vehicles were not allowed in.

On Wednesday night, during a three-hour standoff where Police Tactical Unit and other special units stood on top of Harcourt Road as thousands of protesters, bystanders, and the curious milled at the foot of the flyover waiting for police to move and fire another round of tear gas, activists told this reporter they were hoping for a weeklong general strike to try to stop the amendment bill on its track.

"But I don't know whether a general strike will be affected by the clash," said former legislator "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung of the League for Social Democrats party.

"A general strike is work stoppage. That is one of our concerns, how to melt down the government. If Hong Kong becomes a silent city, obviously the pressure would be immense. It is nonviolent," Leung said.

He said the clearance of protesters meant they had failed in their goal for a weeklong peaceful movement.

"It is very difficult for us to defend [ourselves], for the crowd or masses to uphold any occupation area."

He said the protest groups had two main points.

"The first one is to rally as much as we can rally, to surround the Legislative Council in order to stop the procedure," he said.

"But after the clash, the police emerged and cleared out the area. That means tomorrow morning (Thursday), there would not be enough people to occupy the area there in Admiralty in order to stop the (Legco) meeting. If judged on this, we failed since it was cleared."

He added: "And secondly, we are calling for a general strike so the strategy is very simple. We need to buy time in order to make more people participate in a general strike and reinforce the occupation, but we failed since it was cleared. We don't even have a stand there. That's why I say the use of force in order to clash with the police to break the cordon line is wrong."

'Peaceful demonstration'

Leung said the protest involving some 100,000 people on Wednesday morning was "a very peaceful demonstration."

But somehow the violent action gave "the police an excuse" to clear the area. He said he was not surprised that the police used tear gas and rubber bullets.

"No I was not, because they used the same tactic before."

Another demonstrator said he believed they would stay overnight but called on the young "not to attack the police, to be safe, it may be for a long time."

"We still stay and safety first and keep the people on the street for at least one week because we heard that the legislators are voting next Thursday," he said.

Another said: "You don't need violence against the government as they have no limits on what they can do."

"We can't even touch them. If we touch them, that's a violation. Personally I don't buy that tactic. I don't think the government will stop."

He did not think the youngsters would get tired and go home.

"No, it's quite the opposite. The kids are ready to go to jail for nothing. I think it’s very stupid and too romantic and idealistic. I am idealistic to a certain extent but not as determined as the younger generation."

It was the front who organized the biggest protest march last Sunday, with 1.03 million people walking from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Legislative Council complex, the same site of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

In June 1989, about a million people in Hong Kong also turned up in support of the June Fourth student demonstration in Beijing that led to hundreds, perhaps a few thousands of protesters being killed.

In July 2003, about 500,000 people protested against then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's plan to legislate Article 23 on national security in the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.

The front was also one of 5 groups who applied for a police permit to hold public meetings near the Legislative Council and the Central Government Offices last Wednesday.

The series of actions are aimed at forcing the government to back down and suspend the legislative process on the extradition amendment bill.

Similar strikes have been called by several unions and nongovernmental organizations such as the bus and aviation associations, Federation of Workers Union, Parents-Teachers Association and the Confederation of Trade Unions, as well as teachers groups calling for class boycotts.

The Catholic diocese has called on the government not to rush throuh the bill. Lam is a Catholic and the first woman to become the city's leader after being selected by a 1,200-strong Election Committee filled with pro-Beijing personalities.

Dialogue

Earlier, about 15 pan-democrat lawmakers went to the Government House in Lower Albert Road in Central – the official residence of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – to demand a meeting on Thursday.

The pan-democrat legislators have seen their numbers dwindle after their ilk were disqualified over their oath-taking despite winning in geographical and functional constituency elections (there is no universal suffrage in Hong Kong).

The camp's convenor, Claudia Mo Man-ching of Hong Kong First, said they want to reiterate their demand for the government to withdraw the extradition bill.

"We hope to have a chance for us to have a dialogue (with Lam), without asking for negotiations as such. We have only one request and that is, scrap this most controversial extradition bill," Mo told RTHK.

At the press conference by Lo on Thursday, the Civil Human Rights Front called on reporters to wear a fluorescent vest and a helmet "to show dissatisfaction." The front said "many reporters at the scene did so."

On Thursday, police patrolled Tamar Park and the streets near the Legco building.

RTHK reported a couple of hundred protesters were around the Legco complex, including some who packed away their things and left. Others simply sat around or shouted at police.

Police searched 3 protesters who tried to confront legislators. A group of Christians came by to sing hymns for peace.

A total of 81 people – 57 males and 24 females aged 15 to 66 – sought treatment at emergency rooms of 10 public hospitals, the Hospital Authority said Thursday. Three males and two females were admitted in stable condition.

Lam, in a sharp departure from her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, put out a video message in Cantonese at about past 10:30 pm Wednesday and described the protests as "organized riots."

"Starting in the afternoon, some people repeatedly charged toward the police cordon line and carried out dangerous and even life-threatening acts, including setting fire, using sharpened iron poles and bricks to attack the police, and damaging nearby public facilities, thereby posing serious threats to the safety of the general public, the young people who intended to express their views peacefully, the reporters, police officers and civil servants. We must strongly condemn them," Lam said.

Still, the protesters stayed on. In the end though, the stormy weather and tiredness had put paid to their wish to stay. Protesters slowly dispersed by early Thursday morning. – 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.