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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong leader apologizes as protesters pour into streets

Organizers say 2m demonstrate calling for Lam to step down

Protesters gather near Hong Kong's Victoria Park on June 16, demanding that the city's leader step down and withdraw a controversial extradition bill. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

HONG KONG -- Protesters in Hong Kong demanded the withdrawal of the territory's extradition bill and called for the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a massive demonstration Sunday that organizers said drew nearly 2 million people by some estimates.

A sea of demonstrators in black T-shirts marched through major commercial and business districts to the government's headquarters, one day after the controversial legislation was suspended by Lam, who strongly supported the bill.

Around 8:30 p.m., Lam apologized to the public in a statement, admitting that "deficiencies in the government's work had led to substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief among the people."

Lam's statement said that "communication work [on] the proposal was not sufficient," and emphasized that she made the decision to "restore the calmness of our society."

Organizers of the demonstration said nearly 2 million people attended the march, which lasted more than eight hours. That turnout would make the march the largest in Hong Kong's history, surpassing the one on the same route a week ago.

Police put the turnout along the original route at 338,000, bigger than its estimate for last Sunday's march of 240,000. The figure for this Sunday does not include the overflow crowd, according to sources.

The apology from Hong Kong's leader comes after a news conference on Saturday where Lam said she was suspending a planned vote on the bill, and that the government does not intend to set a deadline to move forward with the legislation.

"Chief executive would like to extend her apologies to people in Hong Kong, and will accept criticism with the utmost sincerity and the most humble attitude," a government spokesperson said in a statement.

If passed, the legislation would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China, where many believe suspects would not receive a fair trial, sparking concern over the city's judicial independence and autonomy.

People react at the site where a man fell from a scaffolding and died at the Pacific Place business and commercial complex in Hong Kong on Saturday while protesting against a proposed extradition bill.   © Reuters

"It is just a tactic by Carrie Lam to buy more time," Louis Lo, a 52-year-old businessman who took his 6-year-old son to the rally, said of the bill's suspension. "She is not taking people's demands seriously," he said, adding that he hopes the march will force Lam to step down.

The march comes one week after an estimated 1 million people took to the streets in a similar protest and four days after violent clashes between police and protesters at the government complex.

Organizers of Sunday's rally also are demanding that protesters at Wednesday's demonstrations not face prosecution and that those demonstrations not be categorized as "riots," which could potentially open up protesters to more serious charges.

They also are denouncing the use of what they say was excessive force by the police, who fired some 150 rounds of tear gas, dozens of rubber bullets and used pepper spray to clear out protesters who had blocked major roads around the government complex to stop a legislative debate on the bill.

More than 80 people were sent to the hospital in what was one of the city's worst clashes between police and protesters.

Wing Loi, a 15-year-old secondary student, said she joined the Sunday rally because she was disappointed at the government's handling of the strong opposition among Hong Kong citizens. "I was shocked that Lam completely ignored the protest of 1 million people," she said.

Like many others, Loi said that she fears Lam will restart the bill's legislative procedure because it was not completely scrapped. "I don't trust her anymore," she said.

A 59-year-old technician, who only gave his surname of To, said he came out "because our freedom is increasingly being squeezed." He said that while the bill has been suspended for now, Beijing's tightening control over Hong Kong will inevitably lead to the erosion of the "one country, two systems" legal framework when it was handed over to China from Britain in 1997.

To also criticized the police action against protesters on Wednesday. "It is the government who behaved like a mob, not the students."

While Lam's administration has suspended vote on the bill, analysts say that there also are other reasons for the persistent dissatisfaction among protesters.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a lecturer in political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that it was "Lam's bad attitude shown during the news conference" on Saturday that most angered Hong Kong people. "She did not have a word of apology, and insisted that the chaotic situation was caused by insufficient communication rather than the government's faults," he said.

Choy also noted that Lam did not address how she will investigate police action against the protesters, with many people believing that police had used "excessive violence."

On Saturday night, a man unfurling a banner in support of protesters against the extradition bill fell four stories to his death from a building scaffolding.

Many protesters on Sunday wore white paper flowers in tribute to the man, and hundreds of bouquets were placed on the street outside the building.

Nikkei staff writer Coco Liu contributed to this article.

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