Hong Kong government stalls debate on China extradition bill amid protests
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The secretariat of Hong Kong's Legislative Council says it has delayed the start of a legislative session on a contentious extradition bill as protesters massed outside to block entry to the chamber and government headquarters.
A statement from the government's press service said the session, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday, had been "changed to a later time to be determined" by the secretariat. Council members would be notified of the time of the meeting later, the statement said.
An overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators filled roads in the Wan Chai district to block access to the government offices.
Many took the day off from work and classes to press their case that the amendments to the extradition bill would erode the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's civil liberties.
Television pictures showed thousands of protesters rallying in and around Lung Wo Road, an important east-west artery near the offices of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as hundreds of riot police warned them to stop advancing.
Some protesters erected barricades to block traffic in the heart of the Asian financial centre, with many defying police calls to retreat, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in late 2014.
Embattled leader Lam said she would press ahead with the controversial legislation despite deep concerns across the Asian financial hub that triggered on Sunday its biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Demonstrators from across a wide spectrum of Hong Kong society began joining the overnight protesters earlier on Wednesday as businesses around the city prepared to go on strike.
The bill, which has generated unusually broad opposition at home and abroad, was due for a second round of debate on Wednesday in Hong Kong's 70-seat Legislative Council. The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.
Lam has sought to soothe public concerns and said her administration was creating additional amendments to the bill, including safeguarding human rights.
In a rare move, prominent business leaders warned that pushing through the extradition law could undermine investor confidence in Hong Kong and erode its competitive advantages.
Sunday's protest, which organisers said saw more than a million people take to the streets, in addition to a snowballing backlash against the extradition bill could raise questions about Lam's ability to govern effectively.
Protesters rallied just a stone's throw from the heart of the financial centre where glittering skyscrapers house the offices of some of the world's biggest companies, including HSBC, HSBC and Standard Chartered, in addition to the Big Four accounting firms, had all agreed to flexible work arrangements for staff on Wednesday, Hong Kong media reported.
Strikes and transport go-slows were also announced for Wednesday as businesses, students, bus drivers, social workers, teachers and other groups all vowed to protest in a last-ditch effort to block the bill.
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill "hurriedly" and urged all Christians to pray for the former British colony.
Embattled leader Lam, who warned against "radical action" at the latest protest, is a Catholic.
Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 22 years ago under a "one-country, two-systems" formula, with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.
However, many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with local elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Beijing rejects those accusations and official Chinese media said this week "foreign forces" were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the extradition bill.
Sunday's protest rally plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy "Occupy" demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam's administration and her official backers in Beijing.
Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.
China denies accusations that it tramples on human rights.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)