Strikes and further protests were expected in Hong Kong on Monday after protesters rejected an apology from leader Carrie Lam following a march that saw an estimated two million people fill the streets to oppose the controversial extradition bill.
After the sweeping protest – possibly the largest in Hong Kong since it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997 – Lam apologised for the way the government had handled the draft law but she stopped short of withdrawing the bill or resigning, two key demands of demonstrators.
Lam has championed the unpopular bill, which would allow citizens to be sent to mainland China for trial, but as the political crisis gripping the city entered its second week, uncertainty was mounting over her political fate.
“Her government cannot be an effective government, and will have much, much, much difficulties to carry on,” veteran Democratic Party legislator James To told government-funded broadcaster RTHK. “I believe the central people’s government will accept her resignation.”
Opposition politicians echoed calls from protesters for both Lam and the law to go.
“We cannot accept her apology, it doesn’t remove all our threats,” said social worker Brian Chau, who was among several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.
On Monday morning, several hundred protesters refused police requests to clear the streets. A policewoman using a loudspeaker asked them to cooperate as officers lined up several rows deep and faced them. A woman in black speaking for the protesters responded with her own microphone, saying they were not blocking anyone from getting to work and would leave only after Lam came to hear them out.
The demonstration on Sunday came after Lam indefinitely delayed the bill on Saturday in a dramatic climbdown. Protest organisers demanded the bill’s full withdrawal and showed their anger at the way police handled a demonstration on Wednesday, when more than 70 people were injured by rubber bullets and tear gas.
Some of Sunday’s marchers held signs saying: “Do not shoot, we are HongKongers.”
“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.”
“Before this week I had never been on a protest,” said 28-year-old 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.
Police, who historically give far lower estimates for political protests, said 338,000 people turned out at the demonstration’s “peak” on Sunday.
Organisers hoping to keep up pressure on Lam called for students and workers to strike on Monday, and for shops to stay shut. The government announced that the Legislative Council would remain closed for the day.
Protesters will be buoyed by the release from jail on Monday of the prominent activist Joshua Wong, who was the face of the umbrella movement in 2014.
Critics say the planned extradition bill could threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law and its international reputation as a financial hub for Asia Pacific. Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving wealth offshore.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said Donald Trump would raise the issue of Hong Kong human rights at a potential meeting with president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Japan this month.
Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the latest series of protests – the largest since crowds demonstrated against the bloody suppression of pro-democracy activists in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989 – amid concerns that any large public rallies could inspire demonstrations on the mainland.
On Monday, the state-owned China Daily, said foreign “meddling” in the affairs of Hong Kong was hypocritical and “ill-intentioned”, and that Beijing would continue to back Lam despite calls for her to resign.
China’s support for Lam will “not waver, not in the face of street violence nor the ill-intentioned interventions of foreign governments,” the paper said in an editorial.
In another editorial, the state-run tabloid Global Times tabloid warned the United States against using Hong Kong as a “bargaining chip” to force compromises in trade talks. “The riots in Hong Kong will only consolidate Beijing’s tough stance against Washington,” it said.