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'Sea of black' HK protesters demand leader step down

Lam indefinitely delays extradition bill on Saturday in a significant political turnaround

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The protesters formed a sea of black along roads, walkways and train stations across Hong Kong’s financial centre on Sunday to vent their frustration and anger at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

Hong Kong

HUNDREDS of thousands of black-clad protesters in Hong Kong demanded on Sunday that the city's leader step down over her handling of a bill that would have allowed extradition to China and which sparked one of the most violent protests in decades.

Some carried white carnation flowers and others held banners saying: "Do not shoot, we are HongKonger" - an appeal to police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters on Wednesday, injuring more than 70 people.

The protesters formed a sea of black along roads, walkways and train stations across Hong Kong's financial centre to vent their frustration and anger at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.

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Loud cheers rang out when activists called through loud hailers for Ms Lam's resignation and and the cry "step down" echoed through the streets. Protesters also chanted "pursue the black police", angry at what they feel was an overreaction by police.

Beijing-backed Ms Lam on Saturday indefinitely delayed an extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, expressing "deep sorrow and regret" although she stopped short of apologising.

It was a dramatic retreat by Ms Lam, but for many opponents, a suspension of the bill was not enough and Sunday's marchers called for it to be scrapped and Ms Lam to go.

The about-face was one of the most significant political turnarounds by the Hong Kong government since Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and it threw into question Ms Lam's ability to continue to lead the city.

Critics said that the planned extradition law could threaten Hong Kong's rule of law and its international reputation as an Asian financial hub. Some Hong Kong tycoons have already started moving personal wealth offshore.

Activist investor David Webb, in a newsletter on Sunday, said that if Ms Lam was a stock, he would recommend shorting her with a target price of zero.

"Call it the Carrie trade. She has irrevocably lost the public's trust," Mr Webb said. "Her minders in Beijing, while expressing public support for now, have clearly lined her up for the chop by distancing themselves from the proposal in recent days."

China's Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said in a commentary on Sunday that central authorities expressed "firm support" for Ms Lam.

The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy "Occupy" demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Ms Lam's administration and her official backers in Beijing.

The turmoil comes at a difficult time for Beijing, which is already grappling with an escalating US trade war, a faltering economy and tensions in the South China Sea.

Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests in the mainland.

The violent clashes near the heart of the financial centre on Wednesday grabbed global headlines and forced some shops and banks, including HSBC, to shut branches.

In a weekly blog post published on Sunday, Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan sounded a reassuring note about the city's financial position. "Even if the external environment continues to be unclear and the social atmosphere is tense recently, overall Hong Kong's economic and financial markets are still operating in a stable and orderly manner," he wrote.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said that protests would continue if Ms Lam does not scrap the bill.

"If she refuses to scrap this controversial bill altogether, it would mean we wouldn't retreat. She stays on, we stay on," said Ms Mo.

Asked repeatedly on Saturday if she would step down, Ms Lam avoided answering directly and appealed to the public to "give us another chance." Ms Lam said that she had been a civil servant for decades and still had work she wanted to do.

Her reversal was hailed by business groups including the American Chamber of Commerce, which had spoken out strongly against the bill, and overseas governments.

The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter: "Well done HK Government for heeding concerns of the brave citizens who have stood up for their human rights."

China's top newspaper on Sunday condemned "anti-China lackeys" of foreign forces in Hong Kong. "Certain people in Hong Kong have been relying on foreigners or relying on young people to build themselves up, serving as the pawns and lackeys of foreign anti-China forces," the ruling People's Daily said in a commentary. "This is resolutely opposed by the whole of the Chinese people including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots."

Ms Lam had argued that the extradition law was necessary to prevent criminals hiding in Hong Kong, and that human rights would be protected by the city's courts which would decide on any extradition on a case-by-case basis. REUTERS