Hong Kong, China – Thousands of protesters in Hong Kong have blocked access to the government headquarters and legislature forcing city authorities to delay a debate over a controversial extradition bill.
Black-shirted protesters wearing helmets and goggles taunted police outside the Legislative Council (Legco) on Wednesday, as they descended on the streets against the bill which, critics say, will undermine the city’s civil freedoms.
By 8:30am local time (00:30 GMT), the roads and pedestrian overpasses surrounding the legislature building in the heart of the city were crowded with thousands of protesters, ringed in by lines of police clad in riot gear.
Some 60 hours have been set aside for debate with a vote expected on June 20.
Near the main vehicle entrance to the complex, protesters engaged in shouting matches with the police, daring them to use pepper spray to force them to disperse.
A hardcore few threw crowd-control barriers in a heap outside the gate, just metres away from the line of police, which shifted inward, tightening ranks as one officer warned the police would use crowd-control measures.
Protesters pushed fowards against the police line to be met with sporadic jets of pepper spray.
“Hong Kong! Hong Kong!” they chanted.
“Officials have asked protesters, who have been surrounding the Legislative Council building, to move away so that they can carry on with [the legislative] business. But the protesters are not moving,” Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Hong Kong, said.
“Today’s protests is much more organic and much younger, with most of the protesters being students.
“Pro-democracy protesters are concerned that in the past five years China has been taking more and more control of the semi-autonomous territory. And this is the latest step in the erosion of Hong Kong’s identity,” Heidler said.
Mark, a 20-year-old student from Lingnan University who preferred only to share his first name, told Al Jazeera he had joined the protests against the bill because he did not trust China.
“The rule of law is central to Hong Kong,” he said beneath cloudy, humid skies. “China is very sneaky. They promised us direct suffrage (to elect the chief executive), but then took it back.”
He said he doubted students would repeat the weeks-long sit-in known as Occupy that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014.
“Now people have different ideas,” he said. “There are more aggressive ways to fight for our freedom.”
The mass gathering comes as the 70-seat Legco, where pro-Beijing legislators have the majority, prepares to debate the contentious Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which has been tabled for a second reading following some revisions which are supposed to ensure better human rights safeguards.
Security has been tightened in and around the legislature building, with riot police deployed in some areas. Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said about 5,000 police were on standby.
“Given the government has the numbers in the Legislative Council, the vote is likely to go in (Carrie Lam’s) favour,” Clarke said. “The only real thing these pro-democracy groups can do is to show their opposition through protest.”
Strikes and transport go-slows have also been announced for Wednesday as businesses, students, bus drivers, social workers, teachers and other groups in a last-ditch effort to block the bill.
Business owners have taken to social media using a hashtag that translates as “#612strike” – the date of the proposed action – to announce closures in solidarity.
Many in the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, are concerned that the bill will undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system and put the territory’s citizens and foreign nationals at risk by allowing suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the territory’s top official, has insisted she must press ahead with the bill despite Sunday’s mass protest when more than a million people took to the city’s streets.
“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong’,” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of Civil Human Rights Front, the main organiser of Sunday’s demonstration.
“We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, (it) will become nothing.”
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly”, and urged all Christians to pray for the former British colony.
Lam is herself a Catholic.
“I urge schools, parents, groups, corporations and unions to carefully consider if they call for these radical acts, what good would it do for Hong Kong society and our youth?” local broadcaster RTHK quoted Lam as saying before the planned action.
While Hong Kong is part of China, the territory enjoys a high degree of autonomy from Beijing, thanks to the “one country, two systems” formula agreed by the outgoing British administration and the Chinese government at the time of the handover.
Article 4 of the Basic Law, the de-facto constitution which forms the basis of Hong Kong’s autonomy, promises to “safeguard the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and of other persons in the Region in accordance with law”.
Part of this autonomy also comes in the form of the city’s independent judiciary, which critics of the proposed changes argue would be eroded if Beijing had the right to request those accused of crimes in the mainland be handed over.
China’s government insists it was not instrumental in the move to change the law, but this week claimed “foreign forces” were trying to damage the country by creating chaos over the extradition bill.
People in Hong Kong have chafed against what they see as the mainland’s increasing influence over the city.
The mainland has been blamed for obstructing democratic reforms and interfering in local elections. In 2015, five Hong Kong-based booksellers who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders disappeared only to emerge months later on China’s state-run television confessing their alleged crimes.
A 60-year-old engineer who preferred to be known as Chu said he had come to the protest with his wife and two friends, to show support for Hong Kong’s young people.
“(We need) justice, especially for the younger generation,” he said. “We don’t just support the students, we support Hong Kong.”
He doubted their efforts would have much effect on Lam. but was not deterred.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “We need to be here.”
Additional reporting by Euan McKirdy from Hong Kong