BEIJING -- They are calling it Hong Kong's "last battle" -- a David vs. Goliath struggle to prevent China from encroaching on the city's freedoms and autonomy -- as Hong Kong authorities face massive opposition to a bill that would enable extradition to the mainland.
But with China's increasingly assertive approach to Hong Kong, the battle may already be lost.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam -- who last year told a journalist that her favorite politician was Chinese leader Xi Jinping -- insists the bill will go ahead, despite a mass protest Sunday that organizers said drew more than a million people. Authorities estimated the number to be a quarter of that.
Any reversal would not only humiliate Lam, but would embarrass Chinese authorities, making a backdown unlikely, according to analysts and pro-democracy activists.
"This is what Hongkongers are against, a tone-deaf leader who turns a blind eye to the people's voices, who pushes ahead robotically and stubbornly at all consequences," tweeted Hong Kong singer and actress Denise Ho.
Critics say Xi's term as president since 2012 has seen a steady whittling away of freedoms that Beijing promised before Hong Kong's handover from British rule to China in 1997, as he has also tightened controls on activists and clamped down on dissent in mainland China. They charge this has eroded the credibility of China's "One Country Two Systems" policy, which is supposed to allow Hong Kong its own autonomous administrative, legal and economic system.
The bill is likely to be finalized within weeks. Businesses across the city are planning to strike Wednesday, when the bill is to be debated in the city's Legislative Council, where around half the members are popularly elected. Pro-democracy activists are planning further protest action.
Lam told journalists Tuesday that the bill struck a balance between the protection of human rights, addressing public concerns, and ensuring Hong Kong did not become a haven for fugitives.
The last time so many Hongkongers turned out in protest -- in 2003, marching against a national security law -- Hong Kong authorities praised citizens for pointing out the problems with the law and dropped it. That Lam has refused to budge on the extradition measure conveys how far Hong Kong has shifted into Beijing's orbit in recent years.
"I think we've seen in the last few years a desire from Beijing and the Hong Kong government to crush political opposition and to remove avenues to continue opposing the government and also to really push the integration of Hong Kong into the rest of mainland China on an economic basis," Ben Bland, Hong Kong analyst at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney, Australia-based think tank, said in an interview.