Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam was forced into a rare apology on Sunday after hundreds of thousands of protesters, dressed in black and carrying white flowers as a sign of mourning, poured onto the streets demanding she scrap a controversial extradition law and resign.
Organisers claimed numbers were double the estimated one million who turned out last week and the protest route closed major trunk roads deep into the night.
It was an extraordinary show of people power in a city whose freedoms are being increasingly squeezed by Beijing, and ended any hopes that an embattled Ms Lam may have harboured of bringing a swift end to the spiralling political crisis that has engulfed Hong Kong for months.
Protesters refused to be appeased by her unexpected U-turn on Saturday to delay the divisive extradition law, which critics say puts foreign and Hong Kong residents at risk of being swept into China’s opaque justice system and damages the city’s reputation as a safe financial hub.
Instead the crowd chanted “Carrie Lam Step Down!” in unison as it snaked for some two miles between Victoria Park and the Legislative Council. Spurred on by activists’ loudspeakers, they switched between spontaneous cheers, protest songs and shouts of “withdraw, withdraw” in reference to the law.
The march united Hong Kong society with young students and professionals joined on the march by many older residents and even mothers pushing prams.
It was the second Sunday in a row that unprecedented record numbers had rallied in democratic defiance of their leadership, who they have accused of doing Beijing’s bidding.
The mood was spirited and tinged with anger at Ms Lam’s perceived weak, untrustworthy response and heavy-handed police tactics last Wednesday when protesters were repelled with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Ms Lam’s statement of apology and pledge to “adopt a most sincere and humble attitude” came six hours after the massive protests began and gained little public sympathy.
The Civil Human Rights Front, one of the main protest groups, immediately rejected the apology as a “total insult.”
In a statement, it added: “Should the government refuse to respond, only more Hong Kongers will strike tomorrow; citizens will take to the streets, until their voices are heard.”
The strength of public opposition had left Ms Lam in an untenable position, Claudia Mo, an opposition politician in the Legislative Council, told The Telegraph.
“She has completely lost credibility among Hong Kong people. She has to step down,” she said.
“I really wish Carrie Lam would stop putting on this cocky and arrogant face and talk to Hong Kong people nicely and just scrap this bill completely.”
Its overturning was vital to retain Hong Kong’s freedom, she added. “This could be our ultimate and final fight.”
Many on the march shared this sentiment. Parents marching with small children in their arms had decided that voicing their protest outweighed the risk of more violence and overcrowded choke points.
“We want to show our children that it is our responsibility to protect Hong Kong. We don’t want Hong Kong to be China,” said Mr and Mrs Yu, a young couple who had brought their son and daughter, aged five and seven to the protest.
“Carrie Lam didn’t show any sorrow for her wrongdoing. She should respond to the people’s wishes,” said Mei Yan, 29.
Vicky Yip, 39, did not protest last Sunday but said she had rallied this weekend after seeing the government’s poor handling of the crisis. “If we don’t rise up then the government will push the law through against the will of the people,” she said.
As the crowd vented its frustration, it was clear that Ms Lam had lost the confidence of many of her people despite her about-face – one of the most significant political turnarounds by the Hong Kong government since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.
As darkness fell hours after the rally began, the streets and walkways around the Legislative Council building still teemed with throngs of people until late in the evening, cheering and waving their smartphones.
Thousands lined up to pay their respects near the Pacific Place mall where a young man fell to his death on Saturday after unfurling a protest banner on scaffolding.
The circumstances of his fall remain unclear but he was swiftly lauded as a martyr for the cause as people paused to lay a flower or write a note of condolence at the spontaneous shrine where he died.
Grassroots protest groups were yet to lay out a clear path forward on Sunday night, but pressure on the government remains high.
I think if we continue the pressure we may not necessarily have an outcome tomorrow but there will be a serious of actions,” said Nathan Law, a student leader during the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella movement.
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“I do think that Carrie Lam will consider shelving the bill in order to protect her government and herself.”