HONG KONG - Hong Kong's police chief has sought to defuse escalating tensions between the government and the city's residents by issuing a clarification on Monday night (June 17), hours after hundreds of protesters gathered outside Chief Executive Carrie Lam's office building to demand her exit.
Speaking to the media past 9pm on Monday, police commissioner Stephen Lo clarified that his earlier comments on rioting only applied to "the behaviour displayed by some protesters" who threw bricks or metal poles at officers last Wednesday (June 12).
"As such, those others who have participated in the same public order event but have not engaged in any violent acts need not to worry of committing a rioting offence," he said, adding that the threshold for prosecution on a rioting charge "is very high".
Mr Lo had characterised last Wednesday's clashes between officers and protesters as rioting, which carries a 10-year jail term.
So far, authorities have arrested 15 individuals on suspicion of rioting or other violent offences. Of these, five were suspected to be arrested for riot-related offences.
Mr Lo said police detained another 17 people last Wednesday for allegedly committing other crimes, including failure to produce identity documents, loitering and possession of equipment for illegal purposes.
His comments came hours after hundreds of protesters forced the closure of Lung Wo Road next to Mrs Lam's office building in Admiralty.
Chanting "withdraw the Bill" and "(we want) dialogue", the protesters - mainly young, with some even in school uniforms - demanded that the leader fully withdraw the controversial extradition Bill, step down and remove the characterisation of the June 12 clashes as "rioting".
The protesters had marched from Tamar Park and the promenade area, where they had gathered after moving away from Harcourt Road to allow the key thoroughfare in Admiralty to open on Monday morning.
Organisers of the protest had asked the people in the morning to clear the streets, gather at Tamar Park, and wait for others to knock off work before regrouping.
JOSHUA WONG JOINS PROTESTERS AT TAMAR PARK
Activist Joshua Wong, who walked free from prison on Monday, turned up in the afternoon at the Tamar Park site to speak to protesters.
"We don't just want a suspension of the Bill, we want Carrie Lam to face the million people, scrap the law completely and remove the label of rioting (on June 12 protesters)... Carrie Lam needs to step down to take responsibility for the current state of affairs," Mr Wong told the protesters in Cantonese.
Mr Wong, 22, was one of the leaders of the 2014 "Umbrella" pro-democracy protests that blocked major roads in Hong Kong for 79 days. He was freed after serving a five-week jail term for contempt of court.
Hundreds of students also gathered at the demonstration site on Monday afternoon next to the government headquarters in Admiralty, even as earlier calls by the organisers for them to skip school to join in the rally were retracted due to bad weather.
But calls for a general strike on Monday appear not to have been heeded.
Protest organiser the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) called on Hong Kongers to go on strike to pressure the government to meet their demands. But on Monday there were only a few reports of groups staging strikes, including 250 social workers and a group of about 100 workers gathered at Citic Tower across from the government headquarters.
Earlier on Monday morning, some protesters from Sunday's march blocked the major access roads to the city's legislature and the government headquarters in Admiralty.
About 70 bus routes were affected on Monday by the closure of several roads in Admiralty. Of these, 10 bus routes were suspended while the remaining services were rerouted. Traffic in Wan Chai was also disrupted, the authorities said.
MIXED VIEWS ON THE PROTESTS
Ms Simone Monteiro, 52, who has lived in Hong Kong for four years, said she could not leave her house on Sunday because of the large crowds, but said she was "okay" with the inconvenience.
"If they do this and they have good results, (achieve) what they want, it's okay, they can continue. But if they stay and see that they won't get what they want, they need to stop," she said.
Asked how long she thinks the protesters should keep up the pressure and, hence, the disruption to traffic, Ms Monteiro said with a laugh: "Well, I pray for weeks, not months."
Madam Zhong Sin Kin, 68, thinks the young protesters are focusing their energy on the "wrong things".
"It doesn't matter if they want to protest but there cannot be disruptions to our daily lives, violence or bloodshed. I hope that in my lifetime I can see change, that Hong Kong can learn from Singapore. Eastern democracies are different from the West, and Western systems are not suitable for us," she said.
A Hong Konger who declined to give his name said in Cantonese: "Old people like us don't appreciate this kind of behaviour. We don't like to see such situations."
2 MILLION PEOPLE AT SUNDAY'S RALLY: ORGANISERS
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets over two consecutive weekends in a show of force that prompted the government to suspend the extradition Bill and the embattled Mrs Lam to apologise. On Sunday, organisers said nearly two million people took part in a march, whereas the police placed the figure at 340,000. The tabling of the Bill was indefinitely postponed last Saturday but many fear it could be reintroduced after public pressure has eased.
If enacted, the law would have allowed one-off extraditions with jurisdictions with whom Hong Kong does not have a permanent agreement, including mainland China.
But Hong Kongers have expressed concerns about sending people to stand trial in China where the legal system is seen as opaque. They also fear the law could be used on political dissidents or activists.
The government said the law was meant to prevent the city from becoming a haven for international fugitives and that there are safeguards to prevent the law from being abused.
CONCESSIONS MADE TO SAFEGUARD PEOPLE'S INTERESTS: CARRIE LAM
Mrs Lam said her administration had already made major concessions to ensure political cases would not be considered and that human rights safeguards met international standards.
The CHRF wants much more. Chief of its list of demands are a complete withdrawal of the extradition Bill, rescinding the characterisation of protesters as rioters, and Mrs Lam's resignation.
Mrs Lam in particular has faced strong criticism for her handling of the crisis and has been accused by protesters of being arrogant, ignorant of the wishes of Hong Kongers and aloof.
She apologised in a statement on Sunday evening, promising to adopt a "sincere and humble attitude" when serving the people.
BEIJING CONTINUES TO SUPPORT LAM
Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular briefing on Monday that China will continue to support Mrs Lam, despite calls from the protesters for her to step down.
Critics said the police had been heavy-handed during a June 9 mass protest which descended into violent clashes, and again last Wednesday, during which rubber bullets and tear gas were used against demonstrators.
Hundreds of protesters had massed around the legislature last Wednesday to prevent lawmakers from entering the Legislative Council building and debating the Bill.
Under the "one country, two systems" agreement with China, Hong Kong is guaranteed a "high-level autonomy" after the 1997 handover and has a separate judiciary and Constitution from the mainland. Its residents are also allowed freedoms unseen in the rest of China, including a free press and the right to protest.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.