Tens of thousands of protesters paralyzed central Hong Kong on Wednesday, blocking major roads in a defiant show of strength against a government plan to allow extraditions to China.
Black-clad demonstrators, most of them young people and students, surrounded government offices, bringing traffic to a standstill as they called on authorities to scrap the Beijing-backed plan.
Rows of riot police were far outnumbered by protesters — many of whom wore face masks, helmets or goggles — just hours ahead of a scheduled debate in the city’s legislature.
By late morning, with crowds continuing to swell, officials in the Legislative Council (Legco) said they would delay the second reading of the bill “to a later date”.
News of the postponed debate did not deter crowds swelling throughout Wednesday.
“It’s not enough to delay the meeting,” said student Charles Lee, 23. “Stalling is not our ultimate goal. We need them to consider scrapping it. Clashes are unavoidable if they adopt this attitude towards their citizens.”
Lawmakers had been due to debate the bill on Wednesday morning in the city’s legislature, which is dominated by Beijing loyalists, with a final vote expected on June 20.
A date for the next meeting on the bill wasn’t announced.
In the first official reaction to the latest protests, a top government figure warned Wednesday that demonstrators blocking roads around Hong Kong’s parliament must disperse and obey the law.
Matthew Cheung, the city’s chief secretary, called on protesters to unblock key arteries and withdraw.
“I also urge citizens who have gathered to show restraint as much as possible, disperse peacefully and do not defy the law,” he said in a video message.
Later, Hong Kong police used tear gas in a bid to stop protesters from storming parliament. Footage broadcast on i-Cable news showed demonstrators scattering as thick clouds of tear gas enveloped a group of protesters who clashed with riot police outside the city’s legislature.
Organizers of a gigantic march on Sunday said more than a million people turned out to voice their objections to the proposed law, which would allow Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory, to send suspects to other jurisdictions around the world — including China.
But the record numbers have failed to sway Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has rejected calls to withdraw the bill.
“The only responsible thing to do now is for Carrie Lam to withdraw the evil bill, or at least to shelve it in order to solve the crisis,” pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung said Wednesday.
“Because the situation is very tense, if she forces it through and asks the police to use violence, I’m afraid Hong Kong’s children will be hurt, will bleed.”
In scenes echoing the Occupy movement in 2014 that shut down swathes of the city for months, people flooded major roads and junctions in the heart of the city Wednesday, dragging barricades onto highways and tying them together. Others plucked loose bricks from pavements.
The Reuters news service reported demonstrators appeared to be getting ready for a long stay like the one in 2014 in the former British colony.
“Didn’t we say at the end of the Umbrella movement we would be back?” Reuters quoted pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo as saying, using the name often given to the “Occupy” protests. “Now we are back!” she exclaimed.
Some protesters deliberately stopped their cars in the middle of one key artery and jumped out, blocking the road, broadcaster RTHK reported.
More than 100 Hong Kong businesses said they would close Wednesday in a sign of solidarity with the protesters, and the city’s major student unions announced they would boycott classes to attend the rallies.
A string of other prominent unions in the transport, social work and teaching sectors either followed suit or encouraged members to attend while a bus drivers’ union said it would encourage members to drive deliberately slowly to support the protesters.
Police used water cannons and pepper spray on protesters outside the Legco building and held up signs warning demonstrators they were prepared to use force.
Many opponents fear the law would entangle people in the mainland’s opaque courts, leaving them vulnerable to a justice system seen as acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.
“It’s the government who has forced people to escalate their actions, so I think it’s inevitable for the fight this time to get heated,” said demonstrator Lau Ka-chun, 21.
Hong Kong’s leaders say the proposed law is needed to plug loopholes and to stop the city being a sanctuary for fugitives, and that safeguards are in place to ensure that political critics of Beijing will not be targeted.
But many Hong Kong residents have little faith in the government’s assurances after years of heightened fears that a resurgent Beijing is trying to quash the city’s unique freedoms and culture — despite a 50-year agreement between Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, Britain, and China that means the city is guaranteed freedoms unseen on the Chinese mainland.
Western governments have also voiced alarm, with the U.S. this week warning the bill would put people at risk of “China’s capricious judicial system”.
Beijing hit back on Tuesday, with a foreign ministry official saying China “resolutely opposes interference in Hong Kong affairs”.
Hong Kong’s stock market sank in morning trade by more than 1.6 percent amid the city-wide turmoil, making it the worst performer in Asia on Wednesday.