HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong delayed a legislative session on a contentious extradition bill as thousands of protesters amassed to block entry to the building Wednesday out of concern the measure signaled 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 11 a.m. 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 protester 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 protester 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 protesters 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 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. A crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, and U.S. 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 offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Lam, who canceled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, 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 emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Lam's administration advisory committee, said Sunday's protest showed a lack of trust in Hong Kong's administration, partly because Lam was selected by a small number of electors rather than by popular vote. However, China's patience with Hong Kong's demands has its limits, Tong said.
"We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform," Tong said. "They don't want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I'm sorry, we're doing exactly that."
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say 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.
The mainland's ruling Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government. Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and was widely seen as the Communist Party's favored candidate.
The Legislative Council includes a sizable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Those in Hong Kong who anger China's central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012.
The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong's rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the "Umbrella Revolution" were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.