Hong Kong delayed a legislative session on a contentious extradition bill as thousands of protestors amassed to block entry to the building today out of concern the measure signalled greater Chinese control and further erosion of civil liberties in the semiautonomous territory.
The overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators filled nearby streets, overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the government headquarters and offices of the Legislative Council.
A statement from the government's press service said the session of the Hong Kong's Legislative Council that was scheduled to begin at 11am would be "changed to a later time to be determined" by the council secretariat. Council members would be notified of the time of the meeting later, the statement said.
A protestor who gave only his first name, Marco, said he hoped the action would persuade Chief Executive Carrie Lam's administration to shelve the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.
"We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back," he said.
A fellow protestor who gave her name as King said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong's young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.
"We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away," she said.
The reluctance of protestors to be identified by their full names and professions — many wore surgical masks to obscure their facial features — reflected an increasingly hard-line approach to civil unrest by the authorities. Such actions are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.
Another statement from the government's information office said access roads leading to the Central Government Offices were blocked and police has implemented traffic arrangements.
Staff members were advised not to go to into work and those already on the premises were told to "stay at their working place until further notice".
Under its "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong was supposed to be 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 today despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory's largest political demonstration in more than a decade. A crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, and US Consulate is warning people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile. Some businesses closed for the day, and labor strikes and class boycotts were also called.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing's increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote was scheduled on June 20.
Sunday's protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
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.
Lam, who cancelled her regular question and answer session today, said the government has 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.