HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the city's legislature on Wednesday (Jun 12), blocking major roads in a defiant show of strength against government plans to allow extraditions to China.
Black-clad demonstrators, most of them young people and students, surrounded government offices, bringing traffic to a standstill as they called on authorities to scrap the Beijing-backed plan.
Erecting barricades, they appear prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy "Occupy" protests that rocked the city in 2014.
Rows of riot police were far outnumbered by protesters - many of whom wore face masks, helmets or goggles.
By late morning, with crowds continuing to swell, officials in the Legislative Council (Legco) said they would delay the second reading of the bill "to a later date".
But they refused to leave and many of the protesters defied police calls to retreat, passing around provisions, including medical supplies, goggles, water and food.
"We won't leave till they scrap the law," said one young man wearing a black mask and gloves.
"Carrie Lam has underestimated us. We won't let her get away with this," he said.
Protesters rallied in and around Lung Wo Road, a main east-west artery near the offices of embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, as hundreds of riot police, some armed with batons and plastic shields, warned them to stop advancing.
"Didn't we say at the end of the Umbrella movement we would be back?" pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said, referring to the name often used for the 2014 "Occupy" demonstrations.
"Now we are back!" she said as supporters echoed her words.
People flooded major roads and junctions in the heart of the city, dragging barricades onto highways and tying them together.
Some plucked loose bricks from pavements.
Police used water cannons and pepper spray on protesters outside the Legco building and held up signs warning demonstrators they were prepared to use force.
More than 100 Hong Kong businesses said they would close Wednesday in a sign of solidarity with the protesters, and the city's major student unions announced they would boycott classes to attend the rallies.
A string of other prominent unions in the transport, social work and teaching sectors either followed suit or encouraged members to attend while a bus drivers' union said it would encourage members to drive deliberately slowly to support protests.
"It's the government who has forced people to escalate their actions, so I think it's inevitable for the fight this time to get heated," said protester Lau Ka-chun, 21.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung urged the protesters to stop occupying the road and appealed for calm and restraint. "We also appeal to the people who are stationed to ... disperse as soon as possible, and not to try to defy/challenge the law," he said.
The demonstrators 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.
The massive rally was also within sight of the Hong Kong garrison of China's People's Liberation Army, whose presence in the city has been one of the most sensitive elements of the 1997 handover.
Standard Chartered, Bank of East Asia and HSBC suspended bank operations at some branches in the area.
But the record numbers have failed to sway pro-Beijing chief executive Carrie Lam, who has rejected calls to withdraw the bill.
Many opponents are fearful the law would entangle people in the mainland's opaque courts, leaving them vulnerable to a justice system seen as acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party.
The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as the 2014 demonstrations did, heaping pressure on Lam's administration and her official backers in Beijing.
The failure of the 2014 protests to wrest concessions on democracy from Beijing, coupled with the prosecutions of at least 100 mostly young protesters, initially discouraged many from going back out on the streets. That changed on Sunday.
Organisers of a gigantic march on Sunday said more than a million people turned out to voice their objections to the proposed law, which would allow Hong Kong to send suspects to other jurisdictions around the world - including China.
Hong Kong's leaders say it is needed to plug loopholes and to stop the city being a sanctuary for fugitives, and that safeguards are in place to ensure that political critics of Beijing will not be targeted.
But many Hong Kongers have little faith in the government's assurances after years of heightened fears that a resurgent Beijing is trying to quash the city's unique freedoms and culture.
A 50-year agreement between Hong Kong's former colonial ruler, Britain, and China theoretically means the city is guaranteed freedoms of speech and assembly unseen on the Chinese mainland.
The pastor of a usually pro-government mega-church issued a statement saying he could not support the bill while the Catholic diocese urged Lam - a devout Catholic - to delay the bill.
Western governments have also voiced alarm, with the US this week warning the bill would put people at risk of "China's capricious judicial system".
Beijing hit back on Tuesday, with a foreign ministry official saying China "resolutely opposes interference in Hong Kong affairs".