Riot police fired tear gas, water cannon, and pepper spray after thousands of protesters surrounded the legislature and forced a delay in a debate over a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong.
What was a relatively peaceful demonstration erupted on Wednesday afternoon at about 3.30pm local time (07:00GMT) as hundreds of protesters tried to storm the legislative council complex, prompting police to retaliate.
Black-shirted protesters wearing helmets and goggles taunted police outside the Legislative Council (Legco) on Wednesday, as they descended on the streets against the bill which, critics say, will undermine the city’s civil freedoms.
The front line of demonstrators in hard hats and goggles, their faces covered with masks, moved metal crowd control barriers, ignoring police pleas to stop. After several failed attempts, the crowd gained access to the grounds of the building and the police released more tear gas to push them back.
By 8:30am local time (00:30 GMT), the roads and pedestrian overpasses surrounding the legislature building in the heart of the city were crowded with thousands of protesters, ringed in by lines of police clad in riot gear.
Near the main vehicle entrance to the complex, protesters engaged in shouting matches with the police, daring them to use pepper spray to force them to disperse.
A hardcore few threw crowd-control barriers in a heap outside the gate, just metres away from the line of police, which shifted inward, tightening ranks as one officer warned the police would use crowd-control measures.
Protesters pushed forwards against the police line to be met with sporadic jets of pepper spray.
“Hong Kong! Hong Kong!” they chanted.
“Officials have asked protesters, who have been surrounding the Legislative Council building, to move away so that they can carry on with [the legislative] business. But the protesters are not moving,” Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from Hong Kong, said.
“Today’s protests is much more organic and much younger, with most of the protesters being students.
“Pro-democracy protesters are concerned that in the past five years China has been taking more and more control of the semi-autonomous territory. And this is the latest step in the erosion of Hong Kong’s identity,” Heidler said.
Mark, a 20-year-old student from Lingnan University who preferred only to share his first name, told Al Jazeera he had joined the protests against the bill because he did not trust China.
“The rule of law is central to Hong Kong,” he said beneath cloudy, humid skies. “China is very sneaky. They promised us direct suffrage (to elect the chief executive), but then took it back.”
He said he doubted students would repeat the weeks-long sit-in known as Occupy that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014.
“Now people have different ideas,” he said. “There are more aggressive ways to fight for our freedom.”
The mass gathering comes as the 70-seat Legco, where pro-Beijing legislators have the majority, prepares to debate the contentious Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which has been tabled for a second reading following some revisions which are supposed to ensure better human rights safeguards.
Security has been tightened in and around the legislature building, with riot police deployed in some areas. Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said about 5,000 police were on standby.
“Given the government has the numbers in the Legislative Council, the vote is likely to go in (Carrie Lam’s) favour,” Clarke said. “The only real thing these pro-democracy groups can do is to show their opposition through protest.”