Thousands of protesters rallied in central Hong Kong, seizing two main highways on Wednesday, in a defiant show of strength against government plans to allow extraditions to China. The Asian financial hub was rocked over the weekend by the largest protest march since the city’s 1997 return to China, as vast crowds—estimated by organisers at over one million—called on authorities to scrap the Beijing-backed plan.
Thousands of black-clad protesters, most of them young people and students, blocked two central roads near the government offices with metal barricades, bringing traffic to a standstill, in an echo of the Occupy movement in 2014 that shut down swathes of the city for months.
Rows of riot police faced down the protesters—many wearing face masks, helmets or goggles—just hours ahead of a planned debate on the bill Wednesday.
Police used pepper spray on protesters at the legislative council building and held up signs warning demonstrators they were prepared to use force if the crowds didn’t stop charging.
The record crowds have failed to sway chief executive Carrie Lam who has rejected calls to withdraw or delay the bill and warned opponents against committing “radical acts”. Many are fearful the proposed law will tangle people in the mainland’s opaque courts and hammer Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business hub.
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 on Wednesday to support protests.
Overnight, a group of around 2,000 protesters held a vigil outside the government offices, with some singing hymns. Hardline protesters had on Sunday made similar plans to spend the night but were prevented by police, who fought running battles with small groups of demonstrators. Throughout Tuesday evening, police flooded the area around the government offices, stopping and searching many young people as they arrived in the area.
Lawmakers are to debate the bill on Wednesday morning in the city’s legislature, which is dominated by Beijing loyalists. A final vote is expected on June 20. The proposed law would allow extraditions to any jurisdiction with which Hong Kong does not already have a treaty—including mainland China.
Hong Kong’s leaders say it 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 Kongers 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 of speech and assembly unseen on the Chinese mainland.
The pastor of a usually pro-government mega-church issued a statement saying he could not support the bill while the Catholic diocese urged Lam—a devout Catholic—to delay the bill.
Western governments have also voiced alarm, with the US 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”.