The showdown cuts to the core of tensions in the former British colony: How much can Beijing set the rules in a place with a history of relative independence, a separate legal code and greater freedoms?
Critics say the extradition change threatens the “one country, two systems” framework that has given Hong Kong a degree of political autonomy from Beijing since it was handed back to China in 1997.
The showdown over the bill also marks the most serious political turmoil in Hong Kong since a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations five years ago that led to street clashes and arrests of protest leaders.
Early Wednesday, hours after midnight, a steady procession of demonstrators moved past the Legislative Council complex, which was guarded by police and sealed off by three rows of metal barricades chained together.
Protesters gathered, some pitching tents, in the few spots not blocked by security forces and in other areas along Victoria Harbor despite warnings from Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, not to take “radical action.”
With a backdrop of Hong Kong’s illuminated skyscrapers, a Catholic student association sang hymns and held candles. Another protester waved a British Union Jack. In another part of the city, Sunny Leung, 24, handed out red signs denouncing the extradition bill.
He was doubtful that the demonstrations would sway lawmakers. “We should at least try,” he added.
“Maybe we [Hong Kong] will die, but we will not die in silence,” he said. “We are protesting until the end.”
Meanwhile, labor unions and small businesses across Asia’s financial capital planned more strikes. In a sign of the rising stakes, more than 4,000 aviation employees from various carriers, including the flagship Cathay Pacific Airways, signed a petition requesting to join the strikes.
“I hope schools, parents, organizations, businesses and unions consider things thoroughly before advocating any radical action,” Lam said Tuesday. “What good would it do to Hong Kong society . . . and our young people?”
The warning came after Lam told reporters Monday that the government would proceed with the bill, which has galvanized an unusually broad swath of opposition, “out of our clear conscience and our commitment to Hong Kong.”
Lam’s persistence has incensed those opposed to the bill, who accuse her of doing the bidding of Beijing rather than representing the people of Hong Kong.
“Carrie Lam ignored the voice of more than a million of our citizens. It is totally unacceptable,” said Bonnie Leung, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Sunday’s demonstration and estimated the number of attendees at more than 1 million. “It’s very angering. The Hong Kong people should take this as a test, to test what price Hong Kong people are willing to pay to fight for our cause, to fight for our rule of law.”
The bill was scheduled for a second reading by lawmakers Wednesday in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council, which is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority. The president of the legislature, Andrew Leung, said Tuesday that 66 hours of debate would be held, followed by a final vote by June 20.
A petition circulated online called for 50,000 people to gather at the Legislative Council offices in central Hong Kong late Tuesday and surround the building through the night in anticipation of Wednesday’s debate by lawmakers. By Tuesday evening, police had already begun cordoning off areas around the offices.
Ip Kin-yuen, vice president of the Professional Teachers’ Union, Hong Kong’s largest teachers union, urged teachers to join the demonstration and said he would hold discussions over the weekend about a school strike. Other labor unions, including the Hong Kong Social Workers’ General Union, had already called a strike for Wednesday.
Hundreds of small businesses — Chinese medicine shops, art supply stores and cafes — with more joining by the hour, took to social media platforms and plastered subway stations with posters to announce that they would shutter Wednesday in support of demonstrators and to allow workers to attend protests. Other business owners said they would allow employees to skip work.
“For the children, for the future, allow us to be brave,” one bridal shop wrote in a message on Instagram attached to a post announcing its closure.
The six employees of HKCamera, a camera shop in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district, quickly agreed to close Wednesday in solidarity with other striking businesses, owner Zeiss Lik Hang Choy told The Washington Post. He was not concerned, he said, with missing a day of potential sales.
“We closed on June 9, too, and we are not worried about closing tomorrow,” he said. “We will not be worried if we have to close more days in the future for real democracy.”
Bleak House Books, an independent bookstore, said it was closing “to attend to more pressing matters.”
“Ah that pesky Hong Kong spirit is rearing its ugly head again. Refusing to back down in the face of adversity,” read a post on Facebook from the shop. “We stand with our brothers and sisters in their fight for a better Hong Kong.”
Lam and her pro-Beijing supporters have insisted that the bill is needed to plug legal loopholes and prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives. The bill has been hastened by the case of a Hong Kong man accused of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan.
Officials in Taiwan — the de facto independent island that Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to absorb by promising it political autonomy — have said, however, that they would not agree to any extradition agreement under the new legislation, because it would treat Taiwan as part of China. Lam has said that Beijing played no role in creating the bill.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen voiced her support for the “freedom-loving people” of Hong Kong on Sunday.
The enormous demonstration Sunday and continued frustration of many in Hong Kong have created for Lam the “greatest crisis for the credibility and authority of her administration,” said Peter T.Y. Cheung, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration. “Although it is unlikely that most people would be affected by the proposed bill, many in Hong Kong no longer believe that she [Lam] would defend Hong Kong’s core values such as freedom and the rule of law.”