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Leading Pro-Democracy Activist Joins Hong Kong Protests After Release From Jail


Protesters in Hong Kong got a boost today when a leading pro-democracy activist was released from jail. Joshua Wong quickly joined the protesters outside Hong Kong government offices.


JOSHUA WONG: It's my honor and pleasure to join this movement. Unfortunately, I can't join rally or demonstration within the past two weeks (ph), but now is the time for me to join this fight.

SHAPIRO: He says, now is the time for me to join this fight.


Now, this comes after a march of 2 million people, according to organizers. And it's all over a controversial bill that could let criminal suspects be extradited to mainland China. The government has promised to shelve the bill. The protesters want it scrapped completely. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Hong Kong. And, Anthony, let's just start with what's happened today. Tell us the latest.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, last we know, a small core of young protesters continued to protest outside the government offices. The protesters also called for a general strike today. But that doesn't really appear to have materialized. Also, the government did another climb-down today. The Hong Kong police held a press conference Monday evening. And they changed their verdict on clashes which occurred on Wednesday, injuring 80 people.

They said, OK, not all the people involved in those were rioters. Thirty-two people were arrested on riot charges, and now the police said they will only prosecute 15, who attacked the police with bricks and poles. So this was a demand of the protesters to release these people and to drop these charges. And the police seem to have done it.

CORNISH: In the meantime, Hong Kong's government has actually apologized for its handling of the legislation. But it has not dropped that legislation altogether. So what's going on?

KUHN: The Hong Kong government has not dropped this bill because it says it's well-intentioned. It's necessary. It's a good bill. They're going to take it back, fix it and get it passed. What they say is this. If Hong Kong is going to tackle cross-border crime, then it needs to have arrangements to extradite people to stand trial where the suspected crimes took place. The problem is, is that people do not feel that their rights can be guaranteed if they're extradited into the Chinese legal system.

Now, I specifically asked protesters about this at the demonstrations. One of them was this ninth-grade student named Jason. And he was worried about being identified at the protests because it could get him into trouble. So he was wearing a mask over his face. And he asked that I only use his first name. Let's hear what he said.

Let's say the police arrested you today because you were in the protest, and they sent you to China. Would you feel safe?

JASON: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: What he told me is he would not feel safe. He says, "the cops in China are crooked. They suppress citizens with measures like sending them to labor camps. They can arrest you on trumped-up charges. It's horrifying."

While the Hong Kong government says it can guarantee people's rights in Hong Kong, people basically just have no trust whatsoever in the Chinese legal system.

CORNISH: Beyond the legislation itself, the protesters are also looking for Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, to step down. What are the chances of that happening?

KUHN: For the moment, there doesn't seem to be much of a chance of that. Carrie Lam says she will serve the people better. She apologized. Beijing, which basically vets the candidates for this job, say they will continue to back her and that they respect her decision to shelve the bill for the moment. But because Beijing has such a say in this matter, it's - to a certain extent, it's really not up to her. And it's also not really up to the people of Hong Kong, who do not get to vote for their chief executive.

CORNISH: Can we talk more about Beijing's response to this crisis? What have they said?

KUHN: Well, the first thing is what they didn't say. They censored information about this whole protest inside mainland China so that people there don't get any ideas and take to the streets. Also, they have blamed the Western media and Western governments from meddling in China's internal affairs. They also insist that this was not a bill that Beijing foisted upon Hong Kong; Hong Kong tabled the legislation itself. But to people here on the street in Hong Kong, it's very clear to them that this bill is exactly what Beijing wanted.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Hong Kong. Thank you.

KUHN: Certainly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.