HONG KONG: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam apologised on Sunday (Jun 16) as hundreds of thousands of black-clad protesters maintained calls for her to resign over her handling of a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
The chief executive issued the rare apology one day after she indefinitely delayed the extradition bill, which sparked one of the most violent protests in the city in decades.
A government spokesman said that poor government work over the bill had led to "substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief".
Lam "apologised to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public", the statement added.
Protesters formed a sea of black along roads, walkways and train stations across Hong Kong's financial centre to vent their frustration and anger at the bill and the government's handling of the resulting demonstrations.
"It’s much bigger today. Many more people," said one protester who gave her name as Ms Wong. "I came today because of what happened on Wednesday, with the police violence."
Organisers said "almost two million" people turned out, an estimate that is nearly double last weekend's already record-breaking crowds.
"Today's march we had almost 2 million people," Jimmy Sham, from the Civil Human Rights Front, told reporters.
Some protestors carried white carnation flowers and others held banners saying, "Do not shoot, we are HongKonger" - an appeal to police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters on Wednesday, injuring more than 70 people.
Loud cheers rang out when activists called through loud hailers for Lam's resignation and and the cry "step down" echoed through the streets. Protesters also chanted "pursue the black police", angry at what they feel was an overreaction by police.
Beijing-backed Lam on Saturday indefinitely delayed an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, expressing "deep sorrow and regret" although she stopped short of apologising.
It was a dramatic retreat by Lam, but for many opponents, a suspension of the bill was not enough and Sunday's marchers called for it to be scrapped and Lam to go.
"We want to pressure our government because (they) didn’t respond to our first march," said Icy Tang, newly graduated from university in Hong Kong. "So we are coming for the second time - and hope she will listen."
The about-face was one of the most significant political turnarounds by the Hong Kong government since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and it threw into question Lam's ability to continue to lead the city.
"She's a terrible leader who is full of lies ... I think she's only delaying the bill now to trick us into calming down," said 16-year-old Catherine Cheung.
Her classmate, Cindy Yip, said: "That's why we're still demanding the bill be scrapped. We don't trust her anymore. She has to quit."
Critics say the planned extradition law could threaten Hong Kong's rule of law and its international reputation as an Asian financial hub. Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving personal wealth offshore.
Activist investor David Webb, in a newsletter on Sunday, said if Lam was a stock he would recommend shorting her with a target price of zero.
"Call it the Carrie trade. She has irrevocably lost the public's trust," Webb said.
"Her minders in Beijing, while expressing public support for now, have clearly lined her up for the chop by distancing themselves from the proposal in recent days."
China's Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in a commentary on Sunday that central authorities expressed "firm support" for Lam.
The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy "Occupy" demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam's administration and her official backers in Beijing.
The turmoil comes at a difficult time for Beijing, which is already grappling with an escalating U.S. trade war, a faltering economy and tensions in the South China Sea.
Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests in the mainland.
The violent clashes near the heart of the financial centre on Wednesday grabbed global headlines and forced some shops and banks, including HSBC, to shut branches.
In a weekly blog post published on Sunday, Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan sounded a reassuring note about the city's financial position.
"Even if the external environment continues to be unclear and the social atmosphere is tense recently, overall Hong Kong's economic and financial markets are still operating in a stable and orderly manner," he wrote.
At the start of the march, protesters paused for a minute's silence to remember an activist who died from a fall on Saturday near the site of the recent demonstrations.
In the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own, about 5,000 people rallied outside the parliament building in Taipei with banners saying, "No China extradition law" and "Taiwan supports Hong Kong."
Some of the protesters in Hong Kong also waved Taiwan flags.
The city's independent legal system was guaranteed under laws governing Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese rule 22 years ago, and is seen by business and diplomatic communities as its strongest asset.
Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" formula since its return to Beijing, allowing freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China but not a fully democratic vote.
Many accuse Beijing of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Some opponents of the extradition bill said a suspension was not enough and want it scrapped and Lam to go.
"If she refuses to scrap this controversial bill altogether, it would mean we wouldn't retreat. She stays on, we stay on," said pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo.
Asked repeatedly on Saturday if she would step down, Lam avoided answering directly and appealed to the public to "give us another chance." Lam said she had been a civil servant for decades and still had work she wanted to do.
Lam's reversal was hailed by business groups including the American Chamber of Commerce, which had spoken out strongly against the bill, and overseas governments.
The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter: "Well done HK Government for heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights".
China's top newspaper on Sunday condemned "anti-China lackeys" of foreign forces in Hong Kong.
"Certain people in Hong Kong have been relying on foreigners or relying on young people to build themselves up, serving as the pawns and lackeys of foreign anti-China forces," the ruling People's Daily said in a commentary.
"This is resolutely opposed by the whole of the Chinese people including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots."
The Hong Kong protests have been the largest in the city since crowds came out against the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations centred around Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Jun 4, 1989.
Lam had said the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals using Hong Kong as a place to hide and that human rights would be protected by the city's court which would decide on the extraditions on a case-by-case basis.
Critics, including leading lawyers and rights groups, note China's justice system is controlled by the Communist Party, and say it is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.