Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Hong Kong on Sunday in a display of anger and fear over a government proposal that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
Organizers said they hoped to draw one of the largest turnouts in years to show the breadth of disagreement with the plan, which has stirred worries about people in Hong Kong, including foreign visitors, being sent to face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.
Protesters carrying signs saying “No evil law” set off from Victoria Park on a sweltering afternoon. Many wore white as a symbol of justice and also mourning in Chinese culture.
The crowds were so large that many protesters said they were still stuck in subway stations waiting to join.
The proposed legislation would allow for case-based rendition of criminal suspects to places where Hong Kong has no formal extradition agreement. The immediate goal is to enable the government to send a Hong Kong man to Taiwan, where he is accused of killing his girlfriend.
There is widespread agreement on the need for that man to face justice in Taiwan. But there is deep concern about the broader implications of the legislation, particularly enabling extraditions to another place with which Hong Kong has no formal agreement, mainland China.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that allows it to keep its own local institutions.
Hong Kong’s courts are far more transparent and independent than those in the mainland. Worries about the reach of mainland China’s legal system have been exacerbated by the disappearance of people from Hong Kong into mainland custody, including a Chinese billionaireand men associated with a company that published books unflattering to mainland political leaders.
Worries about the proposal have inspired hundreds of petitions from student and alumni associations, religious organizations and trade groups. Foreign governments including the United States, Britain and Canada have expressed concerns. Local legal organizations have also raised questions, with lawyers dressed in black marching in a silent protest on Thursday.
A Hong Kong high court judge, Patrick Li, signed a petition organized by University of Hong Kong alumni concerned about the legislation, the public broadcaster RTHK reported. He was later advised by Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma not to sign such petitions in order to maintain judicial independence.
Business associations have expressed fear that the measure would harm Hong Kong’s reputation as a commercial center. The government has responded by removing some economic crimes from the list of extraditable offenses and adjusting the measure so that it applies only to crimes punishable by seven or more years in prison, rather than three years.
The legislation excludes political crimes, and the Hong Kong government has promised to monitor for human rights concerns. But many fear the Chinese authorities could use charges such as bribery to target people who have angered mainland officials.
“I think this law will take away our freedoms if it is implemented,” Peter Lam, a 16-year-old high school student, said at the protest on Sunday. “We will not have the right to express ourselves. So we must stand up and express ourselves today.”
An April demonstration against the legislation drew the highest attendance of any such event since 2014, when a pro-democracy movement shut down major roadways for almost three months, and there were widespread calls to join the protest on Sunday. Some shop owners said they would close to allow employees to participate, and even a local pornography website urged visitors to attend.
Protests were also planned for several other cities, including New York, London, Tokyo and Sydney, Australia.
Organizers said they hoped that turnout at the Sunday protest in Hong Kong, a city of more than seven million, would match or exceed the half-million or more people who demonstrated in 2003 against proposed national security legislation prohibiting sedition, subversion and treason against the Chinese government.
That legislation, known as Article 23, was shelved after so many people mobilized against it, arguing that it threatened civil liberties enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution. Polling by the University of Hong Kong has indicated that opposition to the extradition plan is even higher.
Public anger over the extradition proposal was seen as a factor in the high turnout on Tuesday for a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s deadly Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. Organizers said the vigil drew more than 180,000 people, while the police said there were no more than 37,000.
Hong Kong lawmakers scuffled last month when supporters of the extradition legislation tried to speed up its consideration. But pro-democracy lawmakers have said that unless the government backs down, the measure is likely to pass in the local legislature, where pro-Beijing lawmakers hold 43 of 70 seats.
By Austin Ramzy
The New York Times