HONG KONG — Riot police officers used pepper spray and water cannon against huge crowds of protesters who blocked roads around Hong Kong’s legislature on Wednesday morning, as lawmakers prepared to debate a contentious bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, many of them young people in black T-shirts, dragged heavy metal barriers into the road and flooded across lanes of traffic. The scenes instantly recalled the start of the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, in which thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators blocked major Hong Kong thoroughfares for months.
Those protests, calling for more open elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory, ultimately failed to win concessions from the Hong Kong government. The city’s leaders said this week that they would press on with the extradition bill, despite an enormous march on Sunday opposing it.
“Hong Kong is a civilized city, but they don’t listen to the citizens,” said Grace Tsang, 25, one of the protesters. She wore sunglasses and a surgical mask to protect herself against pepper spray.
With protesters thronging the area around the legislative building, officials said debate on the bill, which had been set to begin late in the morning, would be delayed, at least briefly.
Under the bill, people suspected of crimes could be sent to jurisdictions including mainland China, whose judicial system is subordinate to the ruling Communist Party. The president of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Andrew Leung, said Tuesday that lawmakers were likely to vote on the bill by the end of next week, a faster timetable than had been expected.
At a briefing with reporters Tuesday, police officials had 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.
Several hundred protesters had arrived overnight, streaming into areas near the government offices. 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 Tuesday that he expected the extradition bill to go to a vote on 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, with pro-Beijing lawmakers holding 43 of 70 seats.
Opposition lawmakers had expected a vote 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 drew criticism.
Hong Kong’s stock market was down 1.5% around noon Wednesday, as other markets in Asia saw little movement. While some small Hong Kong businesses had threatened to close for the day to protest the extradition bill, big international companies with a presence in the city have been largely quiet, apparently for fear of offending the Chinese government.
The public furor over the bill is the most dramatic sign in years of rising fear and anger over the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Billy Li, a barrister and representative of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said he was angered by the decision to accelerate the vote after what he described as a record-breaking demonstration on Sunday. Organizers said more than a million people participated.
“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.”
By Tuesday afternoon, labor groups, businesses and student organizations across the city had announced plans to demonstrate their opposition to the bill. Small businesses, including restaurants and bookstores, said they would close their doors; high school students and as many as 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 rush the extradition bill through “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 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 killing of his girlfriend. But the authorities in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing, have said 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 Communist Party. They fear the new law would target not just criminal suspects but political activists as well.