China extradition bill debate postponed as protesters swarm Hong Kong streets

Hong Kong lawmakers have postponed a debate over a controversial bill that would allow fugitives to be extradited to China after protesters blocked roads and restricted access to government buildings.

The city’s legislative council was due to hold the second reading of the bill on Wednesday morning local time. The bill has been met with widespread opposition, including from the city’s traditionally conservative business community, and prompted more than 1 million of the city’s 7.4 million population to take to the streets in protest on Sunday, according to organizers.

In a statement on its website, Legislative Council President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen said Wednesday’s meeting would be “changed to a later time to be determined by him.”

The decision to postpone the debate came as tens of thousands of protesters once again took to the streets of central Hong Kong in scenes reminiscent of the 2014 democracy demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement.

Protesters began arriving outside the Legislative Council buildings on Tuesday night, where they were greeted by a heavy police presence and bag searches. By Wednesday morning, tens of thousands of mainly young people had arrived in the area, blocking streets and bringing central Hong Kong to a standstill.

Up to 5,000 police in riot gear have been deployed to guard the building. On Wednesday morning, police fired a water canon on a protester and used pepper spray on others. Protesters were seen wearing helmets, goggles and heavy-duty workman’s gloves, and pulling bricks from the sidewalks.

Hundreds of businesses, parents and teachers called for a boycott of works and school on Wednesday to show their opposition to the bill.

Although Hong Kong is part of China, it has separate laws that follow the UK system and no capital punishment, unlike mainland China. Many people fear that the proposed extradition law means they could be taken from Hong Kong by Chinese authorities for political or inadvertent business offenses.

‘Hong Kong people are furious’

Wednesday’s protests come only three days after a mostly peaceful march in central Hong Kong. Police estimated 240,000 people attended on Sunday, while organizers put the number at 1.03 million — the latter figure would make it the city’s largest protest since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

Despite the mass demonstrations, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has refused to withdraw the extradition bill, saying it is needed to plug loopholes to prevent the city from becoming a haven for mainland fugitives.

On Monday, she said safeguards had been added to the bill to protect human rights and had received no instruction from Beijing to push it forward. Hong Kong’s lawmakers had planned to dedicate 66 hours across five days to debating the bill.

“Hong Kong people are furious,” senior Democratic Party lawmaker James To said Tuesday. “Our chief executive just ignored the people’s voice, despite the peaceful rally of a million Hong Kong people.”

Sunny Chan, an 18-year-old protestor on the streets Wednesday, said she was “angry” that the government failed to pay attention to Sunday’s protests. “We choose to come out today and stand in the front and protest and try to protect my freedom,” she said.

Protestor Marco Leung, 23, said there would be no difference between Hong Kong and China if the law was passed. “We are not China,” Leung said. “Police should protect the citizens, not the government.”