Hong Kong has delayed a legislative session on a contentious extradition bill after thousands of protesters amassed near the government’s headquarters.
The overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators filled nearby streets, overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the offices of the Legislative Council out of concern the measure signalled greater Chinese control and further erosion of civil liberties in the semi-autonomous territory.
A statement from the government’s press service said the session of the Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that was scheduled to begin at 11am local time would be “changed to a later time to be determined” by the council secretariat. Council members would be notified of the time of the meeting later, the statement said.
A protester who gave only his first name, Marco, said he hoped the action would persuade chief executive Carrie Lam’s administration to shelve the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.
“We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back,” he said.
A fellow protester who gave her name as King said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.
“We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” she said.
The reluctance of protesters to be identified by their full names and professions — many wore surgical masks to obscure their facial features — reflected an increasingly hard-line approach to civil unrest by the authorities.
Such actions are never tolerated in mainland China and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.
Another statement from the government’s information office said access roads leading to the Central Government Offices were blocked and police had implemented traffic arrangements.
Staff members were advised not to go to into work and those already on the premises were told to “stay at their working place until further notice”.
Under its “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997.
However, China’s ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
A crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, and the US Consulate warned people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing’s increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Ms Law has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote was scheduled for June 20.
Sunday’s protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offences, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Ms Lam, who cancelled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government had considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.
She emphasised that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong’s legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Supporters have pointed to the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan.
Because Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have an extradition agreement, he has not been sent to Taiwan to face charges there, though he has been jailed in Hong Kong on money laundering charges.
Under Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework, residents enjoy far greater freedoms than people on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest or publicly criticise the government.