A wave of protesters hundreds of thousands strong, most dressed in black and many carrying white flowers of mourning, have swept through central Hong Kong to denounce a controversial extradition law and demand the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, steps down.
They poured in from all over the city, in numbers so large that the march route had to be extended, and then widened, with crowds spilling from the main road to fill neighbouring streets, and halting all traffic outside government headquarters.
Echoes of protest songs, hymns and chants bounced off the surrounding high rises as darkness fell and then into the evening, hours after the early afternoon start of the protest, which remained peaceful throughout.
It was an extraordinary show of grassroots political power in a city where residents cannot choose their leaders but are free to take to the streets to denounce them. Veteran activists with years of protest experience walked beside novices who had little interest in politics until this crisis flared up.
“Before this week I had never been on a protest,” said 28-year-old Ms Lau. “But I am a teacher, and I realised if I didn’t come I wouldn’t be able to face my students. This is their future.” Like many others, she had been unnerved by the arrests of activists and did not want her full name printed.
Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had agreed to suspend the extradition bill after a week of protests, perhaps the most serious government climbdown in the face of public pressure since a security law was dropped in 2003.
But if she hoped to defuse public anger, ahead of the march scheduled for Sunday, she had badly misjudged the city’s mood.
“Suspending the law but not cancelling it is like holding a knife over someone’s head and saying, ‘I’m not going to kill you now.’ But you could do it any time,” said Betty, an 18-year-old protester who just finished school. “We’re fighting for our freedom.”
Demonstrators turned out in force, calling on authorities to withdraw the bill, free activists rounded up after previous demonstrations, and hold police accountable for violent crowd control tactics.
Many also demanded Lam’s resignation. After hours of protests, she issued a fresh apology on Sunday through a spokesman “acknowledging that deficiencies in the government’s work” have caused controversy and disputes.
But although she promised a humble acceptance of criticism, Lam’s statement was couched in the vaguest terms, and met with derision on the streets.
“Our demands are clear. She hasn’t addressed any of them,” said protester William Cheung, 31. “And why can’t she apologise in front of a camera, rather than in a dry official statement?”
Hong Kong’s most dramatic political crisis in years was set in motion a week earlier, when about a million people turned out – dressed mostly in white – to protest against the planned extradition law.
The legislation would allow residents and visitors to be sent for trial in China’s opaque Communist-controlled courts, which critics say would fatally undermine Hong Kong’s economy and society.
Lam had shrugged off the first demonstration, even though it was one of the largest the city has ever seen, and vowed to ram the bill through Hong Kong’s legislature.
On Wednesday, fresh demonstrations spiralled into the worst political violence since the handover from British rule, with police firing teargas and rubber bullets and attacking protesters. Later there were arrests of activists, including in hospital.
With Sunday’s march already scheduled, and public anger heightened by police brutality and the detentions, Lam was eventually forced into her dramatic reversal, reportedly after meeting top Chinese officials across the border.
But if anything the press conference where she announced the bill would be suspended seems to have encouraged rather than deterred her opponents.
Protesters said they were infuriated by Lam’s air of confident determination as she insisted the law was fundamentally sound, defended police violence and insisted her only mistakes were in communication.
“There are so many young people here today, and if there is one person who mobilises them, it is Carrie (Lam),” said opposition lawmaker Emily Lau, who welcomed the huge turnout as vital to defending Hong Kong’s freedoms. “The only way to ensure we keep our civil liberties is to be internally vigilant”.
There was a sea of protest signs, ranging from a vast banner, carried by dozens, that read ”Oppose the evil police, protect the students”, to small witty handmade signs poking fun at Lam’s hardline language.
“They are kids, not rioters” read one. “HK has become China, we’re all stuffed” said another. Others simply held up sombre images of police violence earlier in the week.
Many protesters also carried white flowers in tribute to a man who fell to his death on Saturday night after hanging up a large protest banner on a building in the town centre. Several described the 35 year-old, who has not been identified, as their movement’s “first martyr”.
Along the march route there were official condolence books to sign, and thousands left bunches of roses and lilies, gerbera and babies blossom at the site of his death to create an impromptu shrine.
“I think I should pay tribute to this person who died to protect our city,” said 20 year-old Cheng Chun, one of those carrying flowers.
Older marchers said that although they feared Hong Kong faced the most serious crisis of their lifetime, they had found hope in the numbers of youth protesters.
“I’m very encouraged by the younger people. If it was just us (older generation) the city would be finished,” said 75-year-old Mr Wu, marching despite his age and the enervating heat. “I was a refugee. I escaped China when there was a famine, and I saw people being shot there. The Communist party isn’t to be trusted.”
Outside the central Wan Chai metro station, prominent dissident and activist the Rev Chu Yiu-ming was greeting protesters arriving at the march.
His decades of experience as an activist include helping Tiananmen Square protest leaders escape mainland China in 1989, and he said he could not have imagined as he supported them three decades ago that he would one day face such a bitter fight for his rights at home in Hong Kong.
“We know what the law means in China,” he said, referring to a recent case of a jailed activist. “We must try to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a totalitarian place.”
However, Lam refused to apologise for police violence towards protesters during Wednesday’s protest, and said her errors were only of communication, not substance, insisting the extradition bill was needed for the city’s security.
Protesters, already concerned by police brutality, fear a further crackdown on activists could be on the way.