With white flowers, vast crowds in Hong Kong commemorate a death and reject Chinese influence

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With white flowers, vast crowds in Hong Kong commemorate a death and reject Chinese influence

As protest movements have swept Hong Kong in recent years, simple icons have come to define the complexity of immense crowds and their sometimes complicated demands. In 2014, the umbrella, a frail but effective shield against rain and tear gas alike, represented a movement demanding greater democratic representation that occupied streets for three months. On June 4, the flickering flame of a candle illuminates the still-burning memories of the Tiananmen crackdown during annual vigils.

And on Sunday, white flowers − chrysanthemums, lilies, daisies − became the icon of the latest march on Hong Kong streets, as many in a gathering of people believed to be the largest in the city’s history clutched floral remembrances of a 35-year-old man, surnamed Leung, who fell to his death Saturday night, after he staged a protest against a proposed extradition bill. One senior leader in the city said the bill is now effectively dead. Mr. Leung had stood for hours atop construction scaffolding beside a sign that said “Make love No shoot! No Extradition to China.” Police ruled it a suicide.

A protester offers a paper flower to pay honours to a man who died after falling from a scaffolding at the Pacific Place complex while protesting, during a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

But to those bearing flowers, Mr. Leung had become a martyr for a swelling movement against the bill, which critics say represents the rising encroachment of mainland China and threatens the protection of civil liberties. Public fury has thrust Hong Kong’s top political leader, the Beijing-appointed chief executive Carrie Lam, into a deep crisis.

On Sunday night, she apologized, with a government spokesperson saying in a statement she “admitted that the deficiencies in the government’s work had led to substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief among the people.” Work on the bill has stopped and “there is no timetable for restarting the process,” the statement said. Chinese authorities offered their “firm support” for Ms. Lam through a commentary published Sunday in the People’s Daily, a central Communist Party mouthpiece.

The bill is now “essentially a dead case,” Bernard Chan, a senior adviser to Ms. Lam, told Bloomberg Monday morning, with “no chance” it will be reintroduced before legislative elections next year.

Protesters wave their mobile phone lights as they protest against an extradition bill in Hong Kong on Sunday, June 16, 2019.

Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

The legislation would ease the ability of Chinese authorities to extradite from Hong Kong people they accuse of serious crimes. It has raised widespread worry that it could be used to force the city’s dissidents to face justice in Chinese courts on trumped-up charges. On Saturday, Ms. Lam said she would delay the bill’s consideration, pending further consultation, after protests broke out last week.

She said at the time that she hoped to prevent further “chaos” in Hong Kong.

But demonstrators on Sunday, in an afternoon march that organizers estimated at nearly two million people − almost double that of a week ago − chanted for her to resign, with thousands remaining gathered around the Legislative Council through the night. Police, who maintained a minimal presence after clashes with protesters last week, estimated the peaceful Sunday march at 338,000, 40 per cent larger than last week. The figure from organizers, if accurate, would mean more than a quarter of the city took to the streets on Sunday. Many said they rejected Ms. Lam’s apology as inadequate.

Protesters pay honours to a man, who died after falling from a scaffolding at the Pacific Place complex while protesting.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

“This seems to be about more than simply the extradition law, which must now surely be completely dead in the water. This is a rejection of Carrie Lam, her administration and the way Hong Kong has been ruled − and a very emotional expression of Hong Kongers’ desire to retain their own unique identity,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong lawyer and author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.

Indeed, the death of Mr. Leung on Saturday night crystallized what some consider a mortal struggle against Beijing’s influence in a city that was handed over to Chinese control in 1997, but which has come to be perhaps the world’s foremost source of resistance to China’s authoritarianism.

In his death, Mr. Leung has “enlightened people that what they are fighting for is not only this regulation. It’s Hong Kong itself,” said Cheng Chung Tai, a pro-democracy member of the region’s Legislative Council.

His voice cracked as he spoke, standing beside a growing pile of flowers at the site where Mr. Leung died. Smoke curled into the air from incense sticks. One sign said: “To you, the person who is now in heaven: let us give voice to the message that you could not.”

“Everyone believes he sacrificed for Hong Kong’s freedom,” said Cherrie Hui, 26, a recruitment consultant. Mr. Leung “is representing our generation,” said Heinrich Man, 25, an insurance actuary. Eric Tse, 42, came with his wife and son and daughter, eight and ten, who stood outside for hours in the heat of a slow-moving march. He wanted to give his children a taste of political participation. A banker, he came with dozens of friends, some of whom took to the streets Sunday for the first time in their lives. “I believe this is the right thing I need to do as Hong Kong people,” he said.

Participants hold up placards as thousands of protesters dressed in black take part in a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019.

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

So many people bought white flowers that nearby florists sold out entirely, leading others to buy yellow sunflowers and blue Chinese bellflowers. Others made their own, folding tissue into white blooms.

Still others carried a printed sign with an image of a single white rose rising out of a spatter of crimson blood. It read: “No China Extradition No Police Brutality.”

The sign was designed by Gary Fan, another pro-democracy member of the Legislative Council, who created it two days before the death of Mr. Leung. He printed out 15,000 copies that were held aloft in the jammed streets Sunday. The design was initially created to commemorate those injured in Wednesday clashes between protesters who hurled water bottles and bricks at police, who responded by firing pepper balls, rubber bullets and tear gas.

On Sunday, protesters also called for the release of young people arrested after the Wednesday unrest, which authorities termed a “riot.” Critics have faulted police, who fired some 150 tear-gas devices, for excessive use of force. On Sunday, they demanded authorities rescind their characterization of the gathering as a riot, and said they want officers who attacked protesters to be held responsible. Crowds of young people gathered Sunday night at the fence surrounding the region’s legislative complex to hurl profane insults at police inside.

“Because of the police brutality, Hong Kong citizens shed their blood for the purpose of fighting against this evil bill, the China extradition bill,” Mr. Fan said.

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