Hundreds of protesters have surrounded Hong Kong’s government headquarters in a bid to block a debate on a highly controversial law that would allow extradition to mainland China.
The overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators overturned barriers and tussled with police as they sought to enter government HQ and offices of the Legislative Council.
Police called in reinforcements and closed off access to the area, with one extraordinary image showing police using a water cannon on a single protester amid the dramatic scenes on Wednesday.
Demonstrators remained in place after first gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, with the US Consulate warning people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile.
Under its «one country, two systems» framework, Hong Kong was 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.
The government pushed ahead with plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory’s largest political demonstration in more than a decade.
Amid the protests, some businesses decided to close for the day, and while labour strikes and class boycotts have also been called it was not immediately clear if those were widely heeded.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing’s increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
«We’re young but we know that if we don’t stand up for our rights, we might lose them,» said an 18-year-old protester who gave only her first name, Jacky, to avoid possible retaliation from authorities.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories and the legislature’s president, Andrew Leung, has scheduled a vote on June 20.
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 said 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.
Agencies contributed to this report