Written by Mike Ives and Tiffany May
Dragging heavy metal barriers, thousands of protesters poured onto roads around Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday morning to block access to the building in the latest demonstration against a contentious bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
The demonstrators, many of them young people in black T-shirts and wearing surgical masks, set up the barriers on a wide road outside the Legislative Council, as the sound of the metal scraping the asphalt ricocheted through a canyon of skyscrapers. Hundreds of riot police, wearing full face shields and carrying batons, looked on.
The protesters were angered by the government’s refusal to back down on the extradition bill, despite mass protests on Sunday opposing the legislation and demanding that it be delayed.
Further inflaming tensions in the city was an announcement on Tuesday by the president of the Legislative Council, Andrew Leung, that lawmakers were likely to vote on the bill by the end of next week. It is expected to pass.
The demonstration Sunday was largely peaceful, though some protesters clashed with police officers in the early hours of Monday. On Tuesday, the city’s police force said members of the public should express their demands peacefully. The South China Morning Post, a local newspaper, reported that thousands of additional officers had been mobilized.
At a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, police officials said they were prepared to deal with unrest.
“The force will not tolerate any kind of violence or the incitement of the use of violence,” said Kong Wing-cheung, a police spokesman.
On Tuesday night, several hundred people streamed into areas near the Legislative Council and government offices, with many of them huddling across the street, blocked by steel barricades. Half a dozen police vans with flashing red lights parked near the protesters and riot police officers with helmets, batons and shields stood nearby.
Other protesters gathered on a landscaped pedestrian bridge and a waterfront, singing hymns and joining in prayers led by representatives of religious groups.
“We may be losing something precious,” Yip Po Lam, a Catholic priest, told the protesters. “But I hope we will not leave behind our values and our persistence.”
Leung, the president of the legislature, said he expected the bill to go to a vote June 20 after a total of more than 60 hours of debate, adding that “the case is pressing and has to be handled as soon as possible.” The measure is likely to pass in the local legislature, where pro-Beijing lawmakers hold 43 of 70 seats.
Opposition lawmakers had expected the vote to take place around the end of the month, based on a regular schedule of meetings. Leung’s decision to add more sessions in the coming days in order to bring the date of the vote forward quickly drew criticism.
Billy Li, a barrister and representative of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said he was angered by the decision to speed up the vote after what he described as a record-breaking demonstration Sunday.
“The Legislative Council, as a body that regulates the government, not only failed to respond to the dissenting voices of the people but rather accelerated the situation,” Li said. “It is not willing to allow the people to understand the case but is hastily forcing the public to accept it.”
The demonstrations Wednesday were expected to be smaller than the march held Sunday, in which up to a million people, or one-seventh of the territory’s population, paraded through the city.
By Tuesday afternoon, labor groups, businesses and student organizations across the city had announced plans to demonstrate their opposition to the extradition bill. Small businesses, including restaurants and bookstores, said they would close their doors; high school students and up to 4,000 of their teachers planned a walkout; and a union for bus drivers urged members to drive well below the speed limit.
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called the situation “extremely turbulent” and urged the government not to hurriedly pass the extradition bill “before adequately addressing the queries and worries of the legal sector and of the general public.”
An online petition called for 50,000 people to protest outside the Legislative Council on Wednesday, as the legislature prepared for its second debate on the proposed law. On Tuesday, the council said it would restrict access to a nearby area that is typically reserved for demonstrations.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said Monday that she had no intention of withdrawing the extradition bill despite the public outrage.
“We were doing it, and we are still doing it, out of our clear conscience, and our commitment to Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters.
The bill that has led to the protests would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
Lam has said the new law is urgently needed to prosecute a Hong Kong man who is wanted in Taiwan for the murder of his girlfriend. But authorities in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing, say they would not agree to the extradition arrangement because it would treat Taiwan as part of China.
Critics contend that the law would allow virtually anyone in the city to be picked up and detained in mainland China, where judges must follow the orders of the ruling Communist Party. They fear the new law would target not just criminal suspects but political activists as well.
Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the decision to accelerate the vote was probably made in the hope that it would bring a quick resolution and prevent public anger from building further.
“The government has good reason to hurry through the legislation in as short a time as possible,” Lam said. Otherwise, it could face larger groups of residents united by their opposition to the bill, “by which time things might get out of control.”
But the Hong Kong government’s refusal to back down on the legislation or delay deliberations will hurt its credibility in the long term, Lam said. “It will demonstrate that the administration is out of tune with public opinion.”