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Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong leaves jail, vows to join protests

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Leading Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong walked free from prison on Monday and vowed to join historic anti-government protests rocking the city, calling on the city’s embattled pro-Beijing leader to quit.



Organisers said some two million people marched in tropical heat on Sunday calling for the resignation of chief executive Carrie Lam, rebuking a now abandoned bill that would have allowed extraditions to the Chinese mainland.



The city has witnessed unprecedented scenes as public anger boils towards the city’s leaders and Beijing, with two record-breaking rallies a week apart punctuated by violent clashes between protesters and police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.



Wong, the poster child of the huge pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests in 2014, became the latest voice to call for Lam’s resignation as he was released from a sentence imposed over his leadership of those demonstrations.



“She is no longer qualified to be Hong Kong’s leader,” he told reporters. “She must take the blame and resign, be held accountable and step down.”



“After leaving jail today I will also fight with all Hong Kongers to oppose the evil China extradition law,” he added.



Wong was sent to prison in May and was eligible for early release for good behaviour — there is no indication the move was linked to the current protests.



– Sliding freedoms –



Opposition to the extradition bill united an unusually wide cross-section of Hong Kong in recent weeks, from influential legal and business bodies to religious leaders.



And while the spark for the last week of protests has been the threat of extradition to China, the movement has since morphed into the latest expression of public rage against both the city’s leaders and Beijing.



Many Hong Kongers believe China’s leaders are stamping down on the financial hub’s unique freedoms and culture.



They point to the failure of the “Umbrella Movement” to win any concessions, the imprisonment of protest leaders, the disqualification of popular lawmakers and the disappearance of Beijing-critical booksellers, among recent examples.



Critics feared the Beijing-backed extradition law would entangle people in China’s notoriously opaque and politicised courts and damage the city’s reputation as a safe business hub, sparking unprecedented turnouts.



Throngs of largely black-clad protesters snaked their way for miles through the streets to the city’s parliament throughout Sunday — with the organisers’ estimate for the crowd size doubling an already record-breaking demonstration the previous Sunday in the city of 7.3 million.



The estimate has not been independently verified but if confirmed it would be the largest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history.



Police, who historically give far lower estimates for political protests, said 338,000 people turned out at the demonstration’s “peak” Sunday.



– Highway occupation ends –



By Monday morning the massive crowds had dramatically dropped to just a few hundred largely young protesters who blocked a major highway outside the city’s parliament and some nearby streets.



But they later ended their occupation peacefully, most of them moving to a nearby park.



The extradition furore is just the latest chapter in what many see as a battle for the soul of Hong Kong.



Many Hong Kongers believe China’s leaders are stamping down on the financial hub’s unique freedoms and culture.



In recent years, the city’s pro-Beijing leaders have successfully resisted bowing to pressure from large street protests led by the city’s pro-democracy activists.



But the sheer size of the last week’s crowds, and unprecedented violent clashes on Wednesday, forced Lam into a major climbdown.



On Saturday she indefinitely suspended the unpopular extradition bill and apologised a day later for the attempt causing “conflict and disputes”.



But the U-turn has done little to mollify protesters.



The Civil Human Rights Front, which is organising the rallies, has called on Lam to resign, shelve the bill permanently and apologise for police using tear gas and rubber bullets on Wednesday. They have also demanded all charges be dropped against anyone arrested.



The violent crowd control measures on Wednesday, used by police as protesters tried to storm the city’s parliament to stop the bill being debated, have proved enormously costly for Lam’s government.



Political allies — and even Beijing — distanced themselves from her as public anger mounted.



“I think she has lost any remaining credibility or legitimacy to rule in Hong Kong because of her own mishandling of this whole affair,” lawmaker Charles Mok told RTHK Radio.



– Headache for Xi –



The massive rallies — which come 30 years after the Tiananmen crackdown — also create a huge headache for president Xi Jinping, the most authoritarian Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.



Under the 1997 handover deal signed with Britain, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep unique liberties such as freedom of speech and its hugely successful independent common law courts for 50 years.



But the huge crowds this week illustrate how many Hong Kong’s 7.3 million inhabitants believe China is already reneging on that deal and fear further sliding freedoms as the city hurtles towards that 2047 deadline.



Chinese state media remained largely silent about Sunday’s historic rally, with social platforms scrubbed clean of any pictures or mentions of the rally.



A history of massive Hong Kong protests
Hong Kong (AFP) June 17, 2019 -
Hong Kong protesters have piled the pressure on pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam with a series of huge demonstrations against a divisive bill to allow extraditions to mainland China.



Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 but benefits from a “One Country, Two Systems” policy that allows it to retain certain key liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary, until 2047.



A push for democratic reforms saw unprecedented street protests in 2014, with demands for change reignited in February this year.



Here is an overview:



– 2003: National security law –



Some half a million people marched against a controversial attempt by the government to introduce a national security law that critics feared would curtail free speech.



The bill, which came after a deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), was the first mass demonstration movement the city’s pro-Beijing leaders had faced since the handover.



It was eventually shelved, and set in process the resignation of then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.



– 2012: Education protests –



Tens of thousands of predominantly young demonstrators, many of them school children, surrounded the city government‘s complex for 10 days.



The target of their ire was a government order for schools to teach “Moral and National Education” classes that praised China’s communist and nationalist history while criticising republicanism and democracy movements.



The government abandoned the curriculum and some of the protest leaders, such as then 15-year-old Joshua Wong, went on to become leading democracy advocates.



– 2014: Umbrella Movement –



For two months in late 2014, tens of thousands of protesters paralysed parts of the city with mass student-led demonstrations and sit-ins to demand democratic reforms including the right to elect the city’s leader.



There were clashes and scenes of violence, which had been rare until then in the semi-autonomous territory, as police used pepper spray and tear gas to break up the demonstrations.



It became known as the Umbrella Movement after some demonstrators used umbrellas to protect themselves.



Police dismantled the main pro-democracy site in December, hauling off a hard core of protesters who vowed that their struggle would continue.



But the movement failed to win any concessions and many of its leaders were imprisoned.



– 2019: Extradition anger –



In February Hong Kong’s government announced plans for a bill that would allow, for the first time, extraditions to mainland China.



The move was prompted by a murder but the opposition and lawyers feared it would tighten Beijing’s grip on civil society and allow it to pursue its political enemies in Hong Kong.



Tens of thousands of people hit Hong Kong’s streets in protest on April 28 in one of the biggest demonstrations since the Umbrella Movement.



It came just days after four prominent democratic leaders were jailed for their role in organising the 2014 protests.



Hong Kong’s government made concessions on May 30, saying the extradition law would only apply to cases involving a potential jail term of at least seven years.



– Bill suspended, fresh protests –



On June 9, more than one million people, according to organisers, took to the streets in the biggest demonstration since the return to Chinese rule.



The police, who made 19 arrests, put the turnout at 240,000.



On June 12, a scheduled second reading of the controversial bill was delayed after huge crowds rallied, blocking major roads and attempting to storm parliament.



Police used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds in the worst clashes since the 1997 handover, leaving nearly 80 people injured.



More than 100 businesses and shops shut down in support of the movement and even Beijing sought to distance itself from the bill.



On June 15, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced that the bill would be suspended, in a major climbdown for her government.



– ‘Record’ protest, activist freed –



Despite Lam’s decision, organisers announced a fresh demonstration would go ahead and people poured into the city’s streets on June 16.



Organisers say two million people marched in the protest, clad in black and calling for the full withdrawal of the bill. Police put the figure at 338,000 people.



On June 17, activist Wong, who became the face of the “Umbrella Movement”, was released after serving half his reduced two-month sentence.



There was no comment from authorities on whether his release was a gesture or simply procedural.



Upon his release he immediately called for Lam to resign.


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Kiev (AFP) June 14, 2019


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