HK protesters dig in for long summer of discontent

BY ANNE MARIE ROANTREE AND FELIX TAM

Hong Kong’s extradition bill demonstrations have mutated into a bigger and more complex animal, ripping open old wounds and expanding a political fight as the city battens down for a summer of protests.

The demonstrations pop up almost daily, with little notice, as activists spread word of their cause with handwritten notes on so-called Lennon Walls across the territory through Telegram and other messaging apps.

What started as an angry response to a now-suspended extradition bill now includes demands for greater democracy, resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and even keeping mainland tourists out of Hong Kong.

“I’m afraid there will be more confrontation further down the road,” said Labour Party lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who has tried to mediate between activists and police.

“The protests will continue. I would expect sizeable protests on and off continuously throughout the summer.”

On Wednesday, organisers of a “silver-haired” march said 9,000 mostly elderly people, some in wheelchairs, took to the streets in support of younger protesters.

“The whole turmoil is caused by the missteps of the government,” said Margaret Yu, 59, a retired accountant.

Wednesday’s rally was the latest in a series that have rocked the Asian financial centre for more than two months, plunging the city into turmoil and posing the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Lam has said the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, is “dead”. But opponents say nothing short of officially withdrawing it will do.

They fear the bill would leave Hong Kong people at the mercy of Chinese courts, where human rights are not guaranteed, and have voiced concerns over the city’s much-cherished rule of law.

In addition to Lam’s ouster, protesters are demanding the word “riot” be withdrawn from the government’s description of demonstrations, the unconditional release of those arrested and an independent investigation into complaints of excessive force by police.

The next big protest is scheduled for Sunday, with demonstrators marching from Victoria Park near the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to the Court of Final Appeal in Central.

But for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.

Deep-seated anger with the government has seen scores of smaller groups protest on the streets and sparked grassroots initiatives such as crowdfunding and newspaper ad campaigns.

Millions have taken to the streets since June in Hong Kong’s largest and most violent protests in decades, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists, and protesters storming and ransacking the Legislative Council.

The protests have at times paralysed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city.

Hong Kong retailers warned that July and August sales could drop by double digits from a year earlier because of the unrest, while tourism numbers and hotel occupancy rates are slumping.

Activists have seized on support for the protests to bolster the democratic opposition’s prospects in the November elections, with the hope it can recapture its veto bloc from pro-establishment rivals.

“There are obviously political forces which would like to maintain enthusiasm among protesters. This is the driving force for some people to mobilise and motivate protesters,” said veteran pollster Robert Chung.

Lawmaker Regina Ip, in a letter to the South China Morning Post on Monday, said the protests were likely to continue in all 18 districts until the polls in late November.

“What we’re experiencing is an infinity war,” said Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy protests. – Reuters