Hong Kong extradition bill debate delayed after massive protests

Water cannon, tear gas, and pepper spray fired as thousands of protesters surround Legislative Council building.

Hong Kong, China – Riot police fired tear gas, water cannon, and pepper spray after thousands of protesters surrounded the legislature and forced a delay in a debate over a controversial extradition bill.

What was a relatively peaceful demonstration erupted on Wednesday at about 3:30pm local time (07:00GMT) as hundreds of protesters tried to storm the legislative council complex, prompting police to retaliate. 

Black-shirted protesters wearing helmets and goggles taunted police outside the complex as they descended on the streets against the bill which, critics say, will undermine the city’s civil freedoms in its “one China, two systems” structure.

The frontline of demonstrators in hard hats, their faces covered with masks, moved metal crowd control barriers, ignoring police pleas to stop. After several failed attempts, the crowd gained access to the grounds of the building and the police released more tear gas to push them back.

After the majority of the crowd was dispersed, about 100 demonstrators could be seen donning gas masks and holding their ground at one section of the complex. 

Hardcore supporters

People in Hong Kong have chafed against what they see as the mainland’s increasing influence over the city.

Roads and pedestrian overpasses surrounding the legislature building in the heart of the city were crowded with thousands of protesters, ringed in by lines of police clad in riot gear, at about 8:30am (00:30GMT).

Near the main vehicle entrance to the complex, protesters engaged in shouting matches with the police, daring them to use pepper spray to force them to disperse.

A hardcore few threw crowd-control barriers in a heap outside the gate, just metres away from the line of police, which shifted inward, tightening ranks as one officer warned the police would use crowd-control measures.

Protesters pushed foward against the police line to be met with sporadic jets of pepper spray.

“Hong Kong! Hong Kong!” they chanted.

Mark, a 20-year-old student from Lingnan University who preferred only to share his first name, told Al Jazeera he had joined the protests against the bill because he did not trust China.

“The rule of law is central to Hong Kong,” he said beneath cloudy, humid skies. “China is very sneaky. They promised us direct suffrage [to elect the chief executive] but then took it back.”

He said he doubted students would repeat the weeks-long sit-in known as Occupy that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014. 

“Now people have different ideas,” he said. “There are more aggressive ways to fight for our freedom.”

The mass gathering comes as the 70-seat legislature, where pro-Beijing lawmakers have the majority, prepared to debate the contentious Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which has been tabled for a second reading following some revisions that are supposed to ensure better human rights safeguards.

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