China Politics

Hong Kong leader vows to go ahead with contentious China extradition law despite mass protest

Key Points
  • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rejects calls for her resignation and vows to push ahead with a contentious legal change that would allow fugitives to be extradited to the Chinese mainland.
  • Lam, Hong Kong's top official, spoke one day after a massive protest in the former British colony which saw some 240,000 people take to the streets against the proposal. Organizers claimed a much higher turnout of slightly over one million.
  • Foreign business groups and governments have been critical of the extradition plan.
People in Hong Kong march in a protest rally on June 9, 2019.
Kelly Olsen | CNBC

Hong Kong's top official doubled down on a contentious plan to allow extraditions to China on Monday, one day after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in one of the biggest demonstrations to shake the former British colony in years.

Carrie Lam, the territory's chief executive, ignored calls for her resignation and reiterated the need for the legislation.

The rally highlights increasing public anger against the government's proposal to seek legal changes to allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to places with which it has no such agreement — including China.

Flanked by the secretaries for justice and security on Monday, Lam stressed safeguards built into the legislation to prevent human rights abuses and said she will continue in her job. She also lauded those who participated in the march and said it shows that Hong Kong's "rights and freedoms are as robust as ever."

Police estimated about 240,000 people marched Sunday at the peak of the protest which saw crowds overflow a city thoroughfare. Organizers, meanwhile, claimed that slightly more than one million people participated. The event rivaled a 2003 demonstration when a reported 500,000 people protested proposed security legislation.

Marchers shouted slogans and held up signs demanding the government withdraw the proposal and for Lam to quit.

It came as concerns have increased that Hong Kong's rights and freedoms are eroding under what is perceived as increased efforts by the central government in Beijing to increase its influence.

Hong Kong, which on July 1 marks 22 years since Britain handed the territory back to China, was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy as a Special Administrative Region under a "one country, two systems" framework that was to remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

Credibility on the line

Opponents claim that the legislation could put Hong Kong's independent legal system — a legacy of British rule — at risk. The government strongly denies that.

Foreign business groups and governments have also publicly expressed concern about any weakening of local law — which has so far been seen as a key attraction for using Hong Kong as a commercial base of operation.

"The credibility of Hong Kong is now on the line," Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said in an email to CNBC after the demonstration. She called on the government to drop the proposal and "preserve Hong Kong as a leading international business center."

Curtis Chin, a Milken Institute Asia Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, expressed similar concern.

"That great history and success record of Hong Kong as a business and economic hub is now at risk," Chin told CNBC.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor,(Right) Hong Kong's new Chief Executive and her new cabinet are sworn in by Chinese President Xi Jinping during an inauguration ceremony in Hong Kong
Keith Tsuji | Getty Images

The throngs of people that took to the streets were overwhelmingly peaceful though some scuffles with police were seen and arrests made. Some activists launched a brief sit-in outside the Legislative Council, the local assembly where the proposals are being debated.

While Beijing has described the extradition issue as an internal affair of Hong Kong, it has also spoken in favor of it.

"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 and deliver justice," the state-run China Daily said in an editorial late Sunday in its online edition.

China has also accused "foreign forces" of allegedly stirring up opposition.

"Unfortunately, some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign," the state newspaper wrote.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Notre Dame, said that China had hoped Lam, who took office in 2017, would be able to avoid the turmoil seen under her predecessor C.Y. Leung which saw protests for greater democracy shake the city in 2014.

"They thought that Carrie Lam has this reputation of pushing through things and at the same time without provoking mass protests," Hui said, suggesting that the latest demonstration could be disappointing for Chinese officials.

— CNBC's Paula Sailes and Vivian Kam contributed to this report.