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Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to demand the local government scrap a plan that would allow extraditions to mainland China — an idea that has also raised concerns among foreign investors.
Police estimated that about 22,800 people marched at the peak of the demonstration, a spokeswoman told CNBC on Monday. Organizers put the figure far higher at about 130,000, according to local media reports.
Demonstrators snaked through congested areas of Hong Kong island, carrying signs and banners criticizing the plan. "Resist the evil law," read one in Chinese.
The extradition issue underscores ongoing concerns in Hong Kong about erosion of the its autonomy nearly 22 years after British colonial rule ended on July 1, 1997. On that date, the city became a special administrative region of China — maintaining its own laws, currency and economic management.
The impetus for the proposed legal change came after a murder in February last year allegedly committed by a Hong Kong citizen in Taiwan. It highlighted not only Hong Kong's lack of an extradition mechanism with the self-governed island, but also with the Chinese mainland and nearby Macau, which is also a semi-autonomous Chinese region.
Hong Kong's government wants to remedy that by changing local ordinances to allow extraditions but only on the final authority of the chief executive, the city's top official. That post is currently held by Carrie Lam, who said last month authorities need to "plug the loophole."
The government has tried to allay concerns by removing nine mostly white collar crimes from the list of offenses that would be covered. It has also said it will safeguard human rights and that no cases potentially involving the death penalty will be included.
But legal and business groups have slammed the idea as a threat to Hong Kong's unique status separate from the mainland and as a Chinese city with an open and transparent legal system free of potential outside interference.
"We strongly believe that the proposed arrangements will reduce the appeal of Hong Kong to international companies considering Hong Kong as a base for regional operations," the American Chamber of Commerce said in in a statement last month.
"Hong Kong's international reputation for the rule of law is its priceless treasure," the business group added.
Many local businesses fear a breakdown in the legal wall separating Hong Kong and China as that "would effectively deal a huge blow to Hong Kong's competitive positioning," Rob Koepp, who follows China for the Economist Corporate Network in Hong Kong, told CNBC earlier this month.
Many demonstrators on Sunday also held up yellow umbrellas, which have become a symbol of aspirations for fuller democracy in Hong Kong after the so-called Umbrella Revolution that shook the territory in 2014.
Those rallies called for a greater local say in how the territory's chief executive is elected. Under the current system, only figures acceptable to the Chinese central government can run for the office.
Sunday's protest also came after nine people were convicted earlier this month for their roles in leading the 2014 protests, with four of them sentenced to prison terms.