Hong Kong’s China-backed government has apologized over the handling of its controversial extradition legislation, which has sparked massive street protests over the past week, including a huge march on Sunday.

A statement issued Sunday on behalf of Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that unspecified “deficiencies in the government’s work had led to substantial controversies and disputes in society, causing disappointment and grief among the people.”

It said Lam “apologized to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledged to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”

In the latest show of opposition to legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Hong Kong, most of them wearing black T-shirts to express outrage at the police response to last Wednesday’s massive protest.

The marchers are demanding that Hong Kong’s leader first scrap an extradition bill that would allow some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China. The conflict, which slipped into unusually violent clashes with police last week, is one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since China took control in a 1997 handover.

Demanding Lam step down

The demonstrators carried banners demanding that Lam step down. Walking slowly and shouting “withdraw” and “resign,” the crowd filled a wide thoroughfare and side streets paralleling the waterfront of Victoria Harbour. As night fell, protesters were still on the streets and smaller crowds were chanting outside Lam’s office. 

Lam’s announcement Saturday that she was suspending the legislation failed to mollify critics of the measure who see it as one of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. 

“Our demands are simple. Carrie Lam must leave office, the extradition law must be withdrawn and the police must apologize for using extreme violence against their own people,” bank worker John Chow said as he marched with a group of his friends. “And we will continue.”

Protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong against the now-suspended extradition bill on Sunday, a day after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the controversial legislation is suspended indefinitely. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Sunday’s march looked likely to match in scale one a week earlier that brought as many as one million people out to express their concern over interference from mainland China.

British legal system mean to remain for 50 years

Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honouring its promise, dubbed “one country, two systems,” that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover.

The former British colony has until now enjoyed a transparent legal system based on British common law. In China, legal proceedings are often secret, carry few protections for the accused and the results of trials appear pre-ordained.

The rally drew marchers both young and old. Few wore face masks or seemed to be trying to hide their identities, in contrast with demonstrations Wednesday, when participants expressed worries over possible retribution from the authorities.

Watch time-lapse video as the protest got underway:

A time-lapse video shows people gathering in Hong Kong to protest against extradition bill 0:54

Protesters also are unhappy with the way police handled that situation, with officers using tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures when demonstrators broke through barricades outside the Legislative Council’s headquarters.

Farther down the parade route, mourners lined up to lay flowers and pay respects at a makeshift memorial for a man who fell to his death Saturday after hanging a protest banner that read in part, “Make Love, No Shoot” and “No Extradition to China.”

The man slipped from the grasp of rescuers after clinging for a time to scaffolding outside a shopping mall. He missed a big cushion set up to capture him, and was declared dead at a nearby hospital.

“I’m really sad. I’m grieving,” said one visitor, Peron Kwong, after tying a white ribbon to a street rail. “As a person born and raised in Hong Kong, I’m heartbroken when I see Hong Kong become like this.”

Calls for general strike Monday

Pro-democracy activists were calling for a general strike on Monday despite Lam’s decision to suspend work on the legislation. Some labour unions, teachers associations and other groups were planning boycotts of work and classes. They fear the bill will be resurrected once the outrage has died down.

“We encourage all the public to carry on the campaign,” said Bonny Leung, a leader of the pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front.

Some of the signs protested police firing rubber bullets at demonstrators during last Wednesday’s demonstrations. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

The Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts. Many in Hong Kong fear the extradition bill would undermine freedoms enjoyed here but not elsewhere in China.

“China just wants to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city,” said Alex To, 54, who said he runs a small business. “Carrie Lam is just a figurehead. Everything depends on the attitudes of the leaders in Beijing.”

After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.

Tens of thousands of protesters took part in Sunday’s demonstration filling the main road in Central, the business district. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters )

She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators.

Lam maintains that the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would allow the transfer of criminal suspects to Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.

So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.

Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of seven million.