A riot has been declared in Hong Kong as police officers have resorted to pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters. Over 200,000 people rallied earlier this week over controversial changes suggested to extradition legislation. Protesters attempted to enter parliament on Wednesday, the scheduled date for the second reading of the legislation. Images from the scene show the presence of ambulances, after police were assaulted with bricks and other implements, reports the BBC. As the situation escalated, police allegedly formed a barricade and used batons to warn off angry protesters.
Hong Kong leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and the Hong Kong Security Bureau have proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistant in Criminal Matters Ordinance, reports Human Rights Watch. Changes to this legislation will allow extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects of criminal activity including rape and murder, the BBC reports. There is also discussion of removing the Legislative Council’s position in the review process, which currently ensures government accountability and transparency. These changes have been called for after a Hong Kong man murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan last year, and was not able to be extradited to Hong Kong, as the two countries had no pre-arranged extradition arrangement.
There is a large opposition to the proposed changes in Hong Kong, with critics saying that it has the potential to allow China to target political opponents, peaceful activists and human rights defenders resulting in torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trial. Man-kei Tam of Amnesty International Hong Kong believes the government is “abusing the law to silence debate about sensitive issues such as Hong Kong democracy and autonomy,” and that these changes would have a detrimental effect on free speech in Hong Kong. Authorities have tried to appease these concerns by vowing to maintain the final say over the granting of extradition requests, and by promising not to hand over people suspected of political or religious crimes. There are also worries about China’s 99% conviction rate, although Carrie Lam insists human rights safeguards would be implemented. Human Rights Watch have handed over a joint letter to Lam, co-signed by 68 non-governmental organisations, calling on Hong Kong authorities to drop the proposed legislation changes, citing “erosions to human rights and civil liberties.”
This is not the first large-scale, politically driven protest seen in modern Hong Kong. Citizens are protective of their democratic system, negotiated when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” semi-autonomous system. Hong Kong maintains a separate legal system to China, and citizens are promised more civil liberties. The 2013 Occupy Central movement combined with the student-led “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014 to oppose proposed reforms to electoral processing which would have required all candidates to be screened by the Chinese government. The leaders of these protests have since been found guilty on charges of conspiracy to cause public nuisances and inciting others to cause public nuisance. This protest shut down the city for several months and is one of the largest civil disobedience movements on record in Hong Kong, along with the 2003 protest against proposed national security law.
Chinese media heavily censored the protest, with the Chinese Daily reporting that “any fair-minded person would deem the amendment bill a legitimate, sensible and reasonable piece of legislation that would strengthen Hong-Kong’s rule of law.” The publication also suggested that Hong Kong residents had been “hood-winked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies” into rejecting the proposed new laws.